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Smoke — Theatre Exile at Studio X

smoke -- interiorJulie, age 20, may be joking, or not, when she says she took a class in S&M (Sadomasochism) 101, but this ingénue has a decided taste for danger. Or at least for a thrill that will enliven her spoiled, relatively idle life.

Julie, the woman in Kim Davies’s naughty but self-conscious two-hander, “Smoke,” has a rich father who barely acknowledges her existence but would express mighty objection if he knew of her dalliance with his administrative assistant, read “toady,” du jour, John.

It’s a one-hour stand really, but Julie and John steams up a friend’s kitchen to which each has retreated separately to have a cigarette and escape a chic Manhattan party thrown by a mutual friend.

Julie realizes who John is before he recognizes her. He’s the guy her Dad, Geoffrey, pronounced pretentiously to sound like the erstwhile ballet, Joffrey, pushes around and uses at his will 24/7 while John jumps to commands and guards the job that might introduce him to muck-a-mucks in the art world in which he aspires to be a star. Like Geoffrey, a lucky dilettante and gallery owner who is among the cream of New York gliterati.

The pair’s individual relationships with Geoffrey will figure into Davies’s script, usually as a segue for Julie to take the upper hand when John is teasing or making love to her in ways she claims to crave, even as she displays prudish tendencies when John begins his roughness.

“Smoke” hints at fire, but even in Deborah Block’s fine production, with ample moments of heat and at least one instance that makes you gasp — a trick with a knife John’s longing to do — Davies can’t get beyond big, contrived effect to go for the real goods and make “Smoke” a “Fifty Shades of Grey” for authentic adults who can take, and might even relish, the tawdriness.

“Smoke” teases on the same level Julie and John do. It fulfills its promise of extreme sex, thanks more to Block, Merci Lyons-Cox as Julie and Matteo Scammell as John more than to Davies, but it goes for the throat like a collegian would and doesn’t quite have the nerve to be truly erotic or even nasty.

Davies, like most of the young playwrights whose opuses have come down the local pike these first months of 2016, goes for high points but never underpins her play with real depth. She wants to shock more than she wants to show people who derive pleasure from rough sexual games or the distance people will go to get or give that extra quiver of ecstasy that turns foreplay and coitus into an adventure.

Scammell and Lyons-Cox can be quite forceful and ardent. Block and her cast try to make “Smoke” as sexy and as stimulating as they can. But you see clearly it’s all an act. Davies provides salaciousness for its own sake. She’s like a fantasist on a telephone or web chat line, talking up a good game and giving cues that show Julie and John getting real frisky but delivering the payoff in ways that are more ostentatious and superficially wicked or outrageous than truly amazing, romantic, or downright hardcore.

There’s no “Body Heat,” “Nine and a Half Weeks,” or “Ultimate Lightness of Being” here. Like Julie, Davies plays at hotness. It’s more like an ambition she has than something she’d really want to fulfill or take to its full extreme. John is much more than Julie ever bargained for, and though Davies has him do some scary things, they mostly titillate the Theatre Exile audience with possibility than arouse or astonish them with full-throttle, no-holds-barred lust.

Not that anyone needs a porn show. But sex and sexuality seem innocuous and gratuitous in Davies’ piece rather than an essential part of both characters’ being that must be acted upon.

John really is up for potentially wild escapades. When Davies clumsily has him run to a store, mid-encounter with Julie, to replenish the cigarettes that brought them together and pick up a condom from a bowl the hosts have thoughtfully placed on a living room table, Julie goes through his backpack.

She’s looking for personal information about John and finds some, but she is more fascinated by a leather case full of sharp knives ranging from a handy tool for dicing vegetables to a tricky switch blade Lyons-Cox’s Julie can’t figure out how to use.

The case of knives is, of course, a foreshadow as heady as any Hitchcock McGuffin. Once seen, they must figure into Davies’s play. This piques interest and creates the play’s tensest and bravest moment but reinforces the idea that Davies is better at plotting sudden dramatic events than she is at sustaining a play. Time between moments of action is deadened by uninteresting dialogue in which John and Julie find out about each other’s not-so-fascinating lives.

Thank goodness for Lyons-Cox and Scammell. If Davies is, for the most part, ordinary in all but a handful of big effects, Block’s leads work hard and keep you somewhat interested in their badinage.

Of course, matters get more engrossing when they become more sexual. They reach a crescendo when Scammell’s John gets tired of hearing Julie talk and decides to test her taste for passion and for the rough and kinky.

Lyons-Cox conveys that Julie may be nearly virginal or at least conventional in sexual experience. Scammell expresses just the opposite. John is ready for a violent tumble. He has a taste for such things, S&M 101 on his transcript or not.

Scammell turns John’s approach almost feline and uses graceful movements punctuated by instances of sudden lurches and attacks to put some steam into Block’s production. You see the lack of fear that comes from experience in these movements.

Lyons-Cox responds well by being surprised that John is giving Julie what she says she wants. He challenges her to live up to her advertising, and she does to a point. While John is aware of what he’s doing and goes about sexual matters with dexterity and confidence, Julie is genuinely astounded as what is happening and doesn’t quite know how to handle the situation. On one hand, she is excited and gratified by John’s frankness and prowess. On the other, she’s terrified of experiencing what she’s asked for.

Surprisingly, though Block, Scammell, and Lyons-Cox did not stint in making the intimate scenes graphic, they have no great effect. You watch them in a matter-of-fact way. They depict exactly what Davies built up to, so even though Scammell’s John convincingly strangles Julie in one sequence, pins her against an immovable cabinet in another, flings her across a kitchen table in yet one more, and kisses her deeply and with a combination of passion and malice, the scenes don’t register as highly erotic, They’re more a fulfillment of Davies’s plot than the culmination of arousing foreplay or even a demonstration of John’s ability to give Julie everything she says she wants. And more.

Remember those knives. In an educational moment, Davies provides a thought-provoking physics lesson to the effect that knives won’t cut or wound unless some kind of pressure is applied to them. Call me an idiot, but I tried this out before cutting some carrots for a chicken salad I made after I returned home from “Smoke.” I ran a blade the blade of an eight-inch carving knife I just sharpened across my forearm and, voilà, no cuts. Not even a scratch. Applying no pressure renders even a honed blade safe.

That doesn’t prevent a frisson of anticipation when John, after showing Julie how a man can put a knife in a woman’s vagina without injuring her, one-ups her at a vulnerable moment by inserting a bare knife in hers. “Don’t move,” he says, and even though you know Scammell is only miming the invasion, the tension builds in the Studio X auditorium as much as it shows on Julie’s frightened face.

As I said, Davies knows how to provide a regularly spaced grand coup or six. The knife sequence pays off.

Little else does although both Scammell and Lyons-Cox can be steamy. They and Block go as far as they can with their material, but Davies, like Ike Holter, Emma Goidel, Julia Cho, and the at least provocative Kristoffer Diaz, just draws an outline, with spikes for big ideas and inspirations. She doesn’t have the stamina or provide the ammunition for “Smoke” to be as exhausting, and exhilarating, for the audience as its sequences purportedly are for Julie and John.

Matteo Scammell is, in many ways, the driving force in this production. John is better drawn that Julie, and Scammell is complete in the way he fleshes John out.

Though John may be of an age at which he should have achieved more as an artist, there’s an edge to him. This is a man who’s been places and done things. Art may not have always been involved, but Scammell’s John has a relaxed, confident way about him that shows he’s comfortable in his own skin and in command of all that isn’t monetary or professional.

Scammell’s John is self-assured without being cocky. He is amused by Julie’s talk about desiring unconventional sex as they share that first cigarette. He sees she, as played by Lyons-Cox, is young, relatively inexperienced, and speaking of things she’s read or heard about more than she’s done them. A class in S&M. A person who has such proclivities is not going to study or analyze. He or she is going to seek for opportunity and do.

That might be what Julie has in mind, but Lyons-Cox has the good sense to make it seem as if Julie is hinting at things she doesn’t quite understand. She has the hauteur and poise of a rich girl, but her sex talk is more bravado than desire.

Except that the kind of exploits Julie describes are in John’s repertoire. He is strong and powerful and doesn’t mind some knockabout sex, especially when he is the “S” to his partner’s “M.” Julie is nonplussed but thrilled when John first takes her by the shoulders and gives her a deep kiss. She likes being held against the cabinets.

Her sangfroid is tested when John puts her in headlocks and becomes physical beyond her want, or wont, but she eventually responds. She knows she’s aroused. She is wet sooner, and in torrents that are new to her, from almost the first time John has her in a tight corner in a tight grasp.

Julie knows where she has an upper hand John’s talent for sexual variation can’t outweigh. He is her father’s employee, and that father, Geoffrey calls at an inopportune moment to summon John to some undefined but mindless task.

It’s then Julie works on John’s vanity by pulling rank as Geoffrey’s daughter and a girl who can have everything without working for a living.

John responds with his knives.

“Smoke” never becomes violent, except in measured, agreeable doses that accompany John’s stormy seduction of a willing and eager Julie. Both characters do get a sort of comeuppance that might put them on equal footing, might become a contest on who can best whom at what, or serve as a stalemate for two people who will never be intimate again.

You can see how much there is to talk about in “Smoke.” But for Davies, less talk and more action, especially more organic eroticism, may have been advisable.

Block and company eke out all they can. Merci Lyons-Cox is quite versatile and quite convincing as Julie. You see immediately she has taste, can afford to indulge it, and doesn’t exactly understand people on the scuffle, such as John.

Lyons-Cox makes Julie immaculate and polished. Her teasing makes you want to tarnish her, but Lyons-Cox lets you see Julie might not be totally ready for what she says she seeks.

There is a point when Lyons-Cox conveys that Julie has fallen for John and could possibly accept him as boyfriend for his sake, and not as a lark (as he might take her) or spite her father. Pride intervenes, and Julie is motivated to show John who holds certain aces that can affect his life. Well, at least his employment and sustenance. That potentially seals both of their fates, although Davies leaves things open-ended.

it’s good when acting and direction save slapdash playwriting, but it’s becoming too much of a habit these days in local theaters.

Diana Bader and Lindsay Leichner of Black Wednesday did a spectacular job of Lyons-Cox’s costume for Julie. It is classic and stylish at once, the top simple tight-fitting black sweater that is collarless and closes with tied-lace toggles that go from the midriff to just about the cleavage. John removing a few of those toggles with his knife is a tad exciting. The skirt is leatherish (pleatherish?) mini that fans out alluringly from the waist and looks tasteful, sexy, and expensive. This skirt also proves quite malleable in Scammell’s capable hands. Scammell’s John, like Lyons-Cox’s Julie is all in black, his unbuttoned, untucked outer shirt having a black-and-white plaid pattern over a black shirt that is similar to Julie’s. He even wears a black ski cap for most of the show.

Colin McIlvaine provides a standard kitchen that serves all purposes well. When I first perused the set, I gave McIlvaine extra marks for detail because he included a smoke detector. During the show, it turned out it was part of the plot, but that doesn’t take away from the authenticity of the kitchen were “Smoke” is set.

“Smoke” runs through Sunday, March 13 at Theatre Exile’s Studio X, 13th and Reed Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 7 p.m. Thursday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $40 to $37 and can be obtained by calling 215-218-4022 or by visiting www.theatreexile.org. Grade: B-

 

 

 

 

 

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