SMOKE (Theatre Exile): Sexy but unsettling

 

John (Matteo Scammell) and Julie (Merci Lyons-Cox) in Theatre Exile's SMOKE by Kim Davies. Photo credit: Paola Nogueras.

John (Matteo Scammell) and Julie (Merci Lyons-Cox) in Theatre Exile’s SMOKE by Kim Davies. Photo credit: Paola Nogueras.

In the taboo world of kink parties Kim Davies stages a dangerous experiment in sexual politics with her play SMOKE. The S&M lifestyle, as Davies portrays here, give radical examples of the different – and similar – ways men and women try to establish power over the other, and kink’s intense, primal dynamic between subordination and control.

John, (Matteo Scammell), the first character we meet in SMOKE, is a “het-dom” in the kink world of New York City. Inversely, he spends every hour at the beck and call of Geoff, a greatly successful artist for whom he interns. As John takes a smoke break in the kitchen, away from all the party’s action, in stumbles Julie (Merci Lyons-Cox). Conversation over cigarettes, which Julie bums from John, discloses why she has approached John. She recognizes him as her father’s intern – yes, Geoff is her father. Julie introduces herself as new to the scene – but she’s apparently experienced in the delicate art of manipulation.  To describe the perilous skirmish for dominance that follows as “cat and mouse” would not do their relationship justice. A better term to describe their tumultuous relationship could be “cobra and snake charmer.”  Both have their own weapons to subdue the other, and the threat of violence is ever-present once their dance begins.

SMOKE pairs the sexy with the unsettling in its characters’ quest for power. The first twenty to thirty minutes seem without structure, aimless, as these two characters meet and begin to click. Initially, the play wants for an apparent conflict. Instead, we view a discussion on millennial disenfranchisement, art, integrity, and people who are turned on by having blood taken. Right as you begin to wonder if we’re just going to watch John and Julie smoke and shoot the breeze all night, a flip switches and the game begins. Their play juxtaposes and subverts notions of aggression and victimhood, and the audience is asked to consider quandaries like: is a woman really in a state of submissiveness if she asked her male counterpart to choke her and throw her around like a rag doll? Your answer may depend on your personal brand of feminism. And what does it mean when the game takes a scary turn – but further down the rabbit hole Julie goes?

After the meandering exposition we are indeed rewarded with a gripping power-play, which director Deborah Block finely tunes to blend eroticism, suspense, horror, and humor. Thanks to Davies’s naturalistic dialogue, and all the subtleties at work throughout the performance, SMOKE feels very real. Scammell brings equal parts charm and maliciousness to his character. Davies gives him less subtext to explore than Lyons-Cox, but Scammell finds interesting ways to confound and intrigue us, and fear him as much as like him. Lyons-Cox embraces Julie’s enigmatic nature to deliver a well-honed performance. Behind her wide grin lies a whirlpool of secrets and dark desires. She embodies Julie’s “tip of the iceberg” presence with cunning and honesty.

Production elements are simple yet effective. Colin McIlvaine’s realistic kitchen set, while detailed, allows us to fully believe in the situation we’re viewing. Block deviates from the theater norm of working with a theatrical costume designer and instead puts local goth-chic fashionistas known as Black Wednesday up to the task. Their choice for Julie’s outfit is worth as much discussion as the script itself.

Theatre Exile was founded “to rattle the gates of the mainstream.” Indeed, they are the only company in the city edgy enough, deft enough, to produce a play like SMOKE. (Studio X, 1340 S. 13th Street) February 18-March 13, 2016; theatreexile.org

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About the author

Joshua Millhouse

Josh Millhouse is a writer, performer, and theater administrator based in West Philadelphia. He hopes, in the near future, to self-produce his own work. In the meantime, he's working hard, seeing lots of theater, and enjoying this circuitous pattern of trips to Wawa that is Philly life.