It begins innocently enough: with the gently probing, exploratory conversation of two strangers meeting for the first time.
John (Stephen Stout), an aging aspirant in the photography world, meets Julie (Madeleine Bundy), a cynical but inexperienced college student, in the empty kitchen of a raging house party. With neither wanting to rejoin the crowd in the main rooms, they strike up a conversation and soon discover an uneasy common ground. John’s boss, the famous photographer for whom he’s interning, is Julie’s bordering-on-estranged father.
It’s only after a few carefully placed lines — passing references to blood and “the needle room” — that it becomes clear this is no friendly gathering. It’s a BDSM sex party.
It’s certainly an interesting premise, one supported by solidly defined characters and a volatile situation. Here we have two people navigating a typical get-to-know-one-another exchange, each trying somewhat awkwardly to gauge the other’s level of interest — but amongst a backdrop of hardcore sex and awkward mutual relations. It has all the makings of a good show, which makes it all the more disappointing when it fizzles.
There are certainly redeeming qualities. Both actors own their roles, though Bundy especially is magnificent, particularly with her ability to slip effortlessly between both sides of Julie’s alternately shy and commanding personality. Her interpretation of Julie’s complexities made me look forward to every one of her lines.
The staging is clever. The L-shaped kitchen makes up the whole of the set, and the audience sits parallel with one line or the other – yet nothing is hidden or lost, the show looks strikingly different but just as good, depending on where one sits. It makes excellent use of the available limited space.
One may be tempted to write off the BDSM aspect as gimmicky, or worse, as cheap humor. But to her credit, playwright Kim Davies does it in an entirely unfrivolous, novel way, using it to frame the roles each character plays in life versus those played in fantasy.
John, a self-described “het dom” — straight and aggressively dominant — is still an intern at 31, dropping everything to tend with tail tucked to his intimidating boss’s every whim. And Julie, a 20-year-old sexual submissive who wants to be spanked and choked, nonetheless commands the room and calls the shots outside of the BDSM scene. Davies’s juxtaposition of the roles John and Julie claim and those they actually live show two people wanting to be something they’re each not quite able to live up to.
But then what? How does this dissonance create real conflict? What do they ultimately do with the disappointment that comes from it? Where does it take the story?
Nowhere, really, which is Smoke’s real flaw. We learn about the problem – two people failing to live up to their fantasies – but there’s no aftermath; we’re just presented with a slice of it. And even then we’re not shown the true depth of this problem. Is John depressed by his life path? Is he even all that aware of it?
Maybe that’s the point, and the audience is expected to focus on this one sampling of what might be wrong, and extrapolate from there. But when that’s all we see — with no real showing of a true, profound conflict — there’s not enough at stake. Despite all the set-up and potential for danger, none ever really surfaces. Nothing moves forward, and no one really changes. There’s nothing for the audience to invest in.
Broken down, Smoke is a description of two people through dialogue. It’s a rich description, full of depth and subtlety, but of a static and still slice of those people — more a painting than a play. And with a painting — even a beautiful one — one tends only to look for a few moments before moving on.