By: Samuel L. Leiter
April 25, 2019: If you’ve been watching Showtime’s “Billions,” now in its fourth season, you’re familiar with the kinky proclivities of a well-off New York couple who engage in sadomasochistic sexual encounters. In them, Wendy, the wife, dresses as a dominatrix, and Chuck, the husband, subjects himself to her physical and psychological belittlement.
The formal title for their activities is BDSM (Bondage. Domination. Sadism. Masochism.), which is also the subject of S. Asher Gelman’s (Afterglow) lackluster safeword. now at Off-Broadway’s John Cullum Theatre, within the American Theatre of Actors building on W. 54th Street.
A lot of trouble has been taken with safeword.’s physical production, which Gelman also directed, and for which Ann Beyersdorfer has designed the set. The audience of up to 140 sits on conventional bleachers facing a proscenium whose overhead and side walls, as well as those on either side of the audience, consist of scrim.
These walls are painted, in semi-cartoonish style, with bricks and windows to suggest the exterior of a New York apartment building. When properly lit by designer Jamie Roderick—whose clever lighting overall is one of the show’s highlights—the walls can look solid or, to show action behind them, translucent. We thus sometimes see scenes through the walls. Many of the episodic play’s transitions are effectively heightened by sound designer Kevin Heard’s throbbing electronic music and sounds.
Within the proscenium is a white apartment, its walls also of scrim, with a small kitchen up left. The same space serves, in turns, as the residence of each of the play’s two couples, one gay, one straight. Directly over it, seen when the lights allow, is a well-equipped “dungeon” where Xavier (Jimmy Brooks), a ripped, African-American “dom,” in briefs, leather straps crossing his six-pack, and motorcyclist’s cap, holds professional sessions with his “sub” clients, who pay $300 an hour for weekly two-hour sessions.
The play opens on such a session, dimly lit in red. It’s meant, however, to be on the same level as the place Xaviar shares with his lover, Chris (Maybe Burke), or to be more accurate, the apartment Chris lives in with Xaviar, who has his own conjoining apartment that he uses for his professional activities. This can, admittedly, be confusing even during the performance.
Not long after, we meet former high school sweethearts and now young marrieds Micah (Joe Chisholm), white, and Lauren (Traci Elaine Lee), black. He’s the head chef at a fancy French restaurant they co-own, she’s a former chef, now a tech company customer service rep. Although more talented than Micah, she gave up her culinary career because of stress stemming from the power relationship at the restaurant which did well only when Micah was its “face.” We can only surmise from the scarcity of exposition that this was a racial thing.
Lauren invites Chris and Xaviar for a gourmet dinner she cooks. Chris is a femme, genderqueer, dyed-blonde, nurse practitioner; the more traditionally macho Xaviar is quiet and shy, in contrast to his pain-inflicting occupation. Devoted as they are, the pair have a sexually open relationship, although Chris resists marriage. Within minutes—as the action freezes, the lights change, and Micah and Xaviar stare at one another—it’s clear that Micah is the sub we saw earlier.
When the staunchly monogamous Lauren eventually discovers Micah’s secret (which he insists is only for humiliation, not sex), the plot opens up as she accuses Xaviar of stealing her husband, calling him a “fucking pervert,” and convinced that Micah is secretly gay. She eventually is intrigued enough by what Xaviar does, however, to take lessons from him, dressing in dominatrix-style black latex and platform shoes, trying thus to regain Micah’s interest.
He, however, unlike Chuck on “Billions,” can’t bring himself to do with his wife what he does with his dom. When Lauren tells him he should be honest about himself at work, he’s sure it will destroy his career. Ironically, on “Billions,” when Chuck is about to be blackmailed about his practices in an effort to kill his bid for Attorney General of New York State, he not only decides to publicly disclose his secret but is elected to the office.
Talk about food, BDSM, and healing (the bailiwick of both Chris and Xaviar) mingles with complications in the inter- and intrapersonal relationships of the couples. Lauren uses her newfound kinky side to discover that a combination of food and dominance may have commercial value—we watch a demonstration with Chris—but by that point her marriage may no longer be on the stove.
There’s a promising premise here for a comedy-drama about secrets and lies, hypocrisy, identity, friendship, love, marriage, power, and sexual boundary crossing. But the tortuous, if not torturous plot, and the two-dimensional characters and dialogue remain bogged down in insufficiently witty, soap-opera clichés.
Moreover, the actors, whose voices are barely audible in the last row (where I sat), lack the charisma, energy, and charm to make us care one way or the other. A few scattered laughs sometimes break the lowkey tedium but Gelman’s consistently dull pacing drags the piece down well before it’s over. It’s hard to shake the feeling, though, that a stronger ensemble and director might have made much of this taste a lot better.
In briefs (whoops, I mean brief), I was ready to say the safeword well before the hour-and-45-minute, intermissionless show had finished flogging me.
American Theatre of Actors/John Cullum Theatre
314 W. 54th St., NYC
Through July 7, 2019
Photography: Mati Gelman