Two years ago, S. Asher Gelman made a splash with his first play, Afterglow, which examined a threesome of gay men. Scheduled to take advantage of Gay Pride month, it ran well over a year. Gelman’s second play, Safeword, has more challenging subject matter. The title comes from BDSM, which is, for those who haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey, bondage and discipline (BD) and sadomasochism (SM). This time, however, Gelman’s plot feels more contrived, and its effect isn’t as strong.
The play, which focuses on two interracial couples, one straight and one gay, opens with a scene of violence on Ann Beyersdorfer’s two-level set. On the upper level, seen through a scrim, is a “dungeon” where a sturdy black man in leather gear is bullwhipping another man, who is strung up. The intense red lighting by Jamie Roderick emphasizes the “safeword” of the title, which is “red.” It is a signal from the submissive person that he (or she, perhaps) can take no more, and the role-playing must end. Unfortunately, the submissive fumbles the safeword, and it’s a signal of credibility issues to come.
In the next scene, two people are relaxing in a comfortable modernist living room. One is Lauren (Traci Elaine Lee), a black woman, and she has just met Chris (Maybe Burke), a transgender neighbor. Chris and Lauren hit it off, and Lauren invites Chris and his partner Xavier (Jimmy Brooks) to dinner. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee their partners were in the dungeon.
It turns out that Chris is a nurse practitioner, and Xavier’s job is domination. Meanwhile, Lauren’s husband, Micah (Joe Chisholm), runs a high-end restaurant; although they started it together, Lauren has stepped away. During the dinner she presses Xavier on details of his job, and Micah becomes uncomfortable, claiming that “it’s not appropriate dinner conversation.” But Lauren persists.
The dinner is a turning point. Now that Micah and his “master” have met socially, Xavier tells him, they must end the relationship. Under Gelman’s direction, Brooks capably conveys Xavier’s stern professionalism and his soft side, and Chisholm is excellent as a tortured soul, building the anguish of Micah’s abandonment and desperation.
Gelman has respect for his subject, but at times the dialogue sounds more suited to an educational video about BDSM, as when Lauren, who necessarily discovers Micah’s secret, voices her newly enlightened view: “You said you were ashamed of this. … You have nothing to be ashamed of. Neither of us has to be ashamed! This is something we can do together!”
But there are serious problems both regarding Micah’s willingness and logical plot points. Micah has supposedly been seeing Xavier three years: how could he possibly forget his safeword in that first scene? And how has Lauren, who has remarked on how stressed he is, never seen whip marks on her husband’s back?
And then Micah begins to hurt himself—he puts his hand on a hot stove, and bandages cover his forearms. “It’s fine,” he tells Lauren. “It’ll heal in a few days.” “This has been happening a lot lately, like, a lot,” she observes (she is not, after all, oblivious to marks on his body!), and he responds, “I’m just stressed out.” Now, even if Lauren suspects Micah needs therapy for a different pathology, as she seems to, Gelman’s conflating his physical injuries with B&D practice is misleading. Once the characters’ credibility falters, so does the story’s impact.
Nonetheless, the actors are fine. The transgender Burke wears Fabian Fidel Aguilar’s dresses and heels comfortably as the willowy Chris, as well as Chris’s scrubs. Xavier is sympathetic as the dom who is blamed for Micah’s downhill slide, but Lauren is a problem. Her journey to learn about B&D eventually leads her to dress up in a leather corset to “help” her husband. It feels like an embarrassingly weird permutation of a Rock Hudson–Doris Day comedy: Lover, Come Beat, as it were. A final twist for a new restaurant is too outré to take seriously.
Gelman’s first-rate design team also includes Kevin Heard, whose sound often combines music and thumps with a low drone to create an unsettling, edgy atmosphere. Matt Franta has the bizarre credit of “violence designer”; happily, all four actors take their bows in apparent good health, so kudos to him. Still, even if you don’t need to yell “Red!” before it’s over, Safeword is a letdown.
Midnight Theatricals’ production of Safeword runs through July 7 at the American Theatre of Actors (314 W. 54th St.). Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, and Thursday through Saturday, and at 7 p.m. Sunday; matinees are Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For tickets and more information, visit safewordtheplay.com.