Review: Theatre Exile’s Smoke is 50 Shades of Meh

Kim Davies' play about sexual bondage feels like a cynical exercise in edginess for its own sake.

Matteo Scammel and Merci Lyons-Cox in Smoke at Theatre Exile. (Photo by Paola Nogueras)

Matteo Scammel and Merci Lyons-Cox in Smoke at Theatre Exile. (Photo by Paola Nogueras)

“Will I seem terminally un-hip,” worried the 59-year-old critic, “if I admit I’m not into bondage?” Don’t get me wrong: I’m not offended, but I just don’t care about it — or at least, I don’t think it’s much of a spectator sport.

But if for a moment I fantasize about bondage and its appeal — don’t worry, I’ll keep this abstract — I imagine mysterious dark rooms, brutishly sexy partners with come-hither allure, and wordless but charged encounters.

All of which would be completely wrong — at least, according to Kim Davies’ play, Smoke. Here, in an ugly New York apartment kitchen, John and Julie awkwardly hook up. He’s a 31-year-old aspiring artist; she’s a 20-year-old rich girl student, who plans to drop out of college and do nothing. Only about 20 minutes into their agonizingly banal conversation do we start to realize that what they want isn’t just ordinary sex, it’s the kinky, high-risk kind.

Perhaps Davies is trying for irony, showing that dangerous sexual fantasies can be part of even the most seemingly ordinary encounter. (Nothing, and I mean nothing, stops John and Julie from checking their cellphones whenever they beep.) Think of how The Sopranos was often most arresting when focusing not on mob violence, but on their bourgeois home life.

On the other hand, the tone shifts considerably by the end, moving into very different psychological territory. Maybe we’re meant to take this more seriously. Is it a cautionary tale?

But really, that’s the problem. I’m only guessing. Much of Smoke seems opaque to me, or worse — a cynical exercise in edginess for its own sake. As seen in Deborah Block’s production, it fails to suggest either the depth of John and Julie’s attraction, or the danger beneath it. Despite decent (or do I mean indecent?) performances by two attractive actors (Matteo Scammell as John, Merci Lyons-Cox as Julie) the characters are nattering bores. If the audience can’t understand the allure, what’s the point?

If this is the bondage scene, my response to such an invitation — terminally unhip, I know — is thanks but no thanks: I’ll just stick with my hot water bottle and my Murder, She Wrote reruns.

Smoke runs through February 28. For more information, visit Theatre Exile’s website.