“Safeword,” the latest queer-centric drama written and directed by S. Asher Gelman (his surprise hit “Afterglow” ran for over a year Off-Broadway) begins with the loud, piercing crack of a whip. The daring dramatist knows how to grab our attention, and over the course of the next 100 minutes, he never lets go.
The whip, as it happens, is wielded by a stunningly gorgeous male Pro Dom clad in black fetish gear. The target is a muscular Sub, stripped to his underwear, on his knees. They are playing in the Dom’s dimly lit “dungeon” in a Manhattan high-rise, and we can’t look away.
Cut to a sleek, tastefully appointed apartment on a floor below where Chris (Maybe Burke), a smart-alecky, genderqueer nurse practitioner, is visiting their neighbor, Lauren (Traci Elaine Lee), a former chef, the two bonding over glasses of wine. Although the pair had never officially met before, they strike up an instant friendship.
When Chris and their partner, Xavier (Jimmy Brooks in a soulful, understated turn), come over for dinner a couple of weeks later, one of those bizarre, only-in-New-York coincidences occurs. Turns out Xavier is the Dom, a sort of BDSM sex therapist. And Lauren’s husband, Micah? He’s the Sub, and neither Chris nor Lauren has a clue. The cast makes the most of this exceedingly awkward moment.
For the remainder of the play, we see how this unlikely foursome (each about 30 years old) navigate the thorny situation they’ve created for themselves. Will Lauren, who becomes fascinated by Xavier’s profession but is “repressed as fuck,” get wise to her hubby’s dark secret?
“Safeword” is a rare play that attempts to pull back the curtain on the BDSM subculture. Sure, we see the giving and receiving of pain, but also the aftercare, where the Dom tenderly consoles the Sub. We witness the therapeutic power of extreme role-play, and it’s surprisingly alluring.
Micah (Joe Chisholm), a head chef who spends his days at his tony French restaurant making countless decisions and barking orders to the staff, values his precious sessions as a way to cede control to someone else. Oddly enough, being bound and bullied elicits a supreme sense of freedom. And despite the near-nudity and intense intimacy with another man, he insists it’s not sexual and he is not gay. We believe him.
Scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer has taken over the theater with her painted scrims featuring a black-and-white sketch of a cityscape. The bi-level construction allows us to contrast the action in the BDSM playroom with that in the apartment below. Jamie Roderick’s lighting design works overtime to intensify the mood.
To be sure, the script has some wooden patches, and the plot feels contrived — couldn’t Micah find an effective Dom anyplace else but in his own building? Perhaps it’s simply a wicked twist of fate. As Chris wryly observes, “The universe works in mysterious ways.”
Across town at 59E59 Theaters, a parallel dynamic is being played out in the harrowing and hilarious “Caroline’s Kitchen.” The besieged chef here is Caroline (Caroline Langrishe), a woman in her 50s with her own cooking show, filmed in her sprawling London home. Think Martha Stewart with longer hair and a British accent (this production was brought across the pond as part of 59E59’s Brits Off Broadway series). On television she displays perfect culinary technique in a perfect kitchen, but when the camera is turned off her life is anything but. She’s a chef on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Under the razor-sharp direction of Alastair Whatley, the convergence of unfortunate events in “Caroline’s Kitchen” is so relentless it’s wildly comical.
While no one seeks out a Pro Dom to cope with life’s mounting pressures, the characters manage to inflict heavy doses of pain on one another. The overscheduled and possibly alcoholic Caroline is a dreadful mother to her 21-year-old son, Leo (Tom England). A God-fearing Christian, she’s in utter denial that Leo is gay and suffering a devastating heartbreak. She also refuses to accept that he’s vegan. Her husband Mike (Aden Gillett), a self-absorbed finance wiz, is a crusty blowhard who has never shown Leo an ounce of fatherly love.
Caroline answers the news of Mike’s affair with a younger woman by having a spiteful fling of her own — with their carpenter, Graeme (James Sutton), no less. Not only are Caroline and Graeme mean to each other, but his ailing wife becomes a casualty as well. There are a hundred other sticky subplots swirling around the kitchen, including one involving Caroline’s shrill, lonely assistant (Jasmyn Banks), which are impossible to detail here.
When Caroline brandishes a gleaming chef’s knife and sets it on the kitchen counter early in the first act, we suspect it will be used to inflict pain at the play’s climax. I won’t spoil the surprise.
None of selfish cynics bother to listen to each other. Rather, they talk at one another and interrupt often. Global warming, real estate, celebrity, adultery, corrupting the nation’s youth, macerated strawberries, golf, cigarette smoking, Syria, religion, champagne, paparazzi, forgiveness, and Armageddon are just a few of the topics crammed into this breakneck-paced, 90-minute, merciless satire.
I would say that playwright Torben Betts has thrown in everything but the kitchen sink, but that’s in there as well.
SAFEWORD | Midnight Theatricals at the American Theatre of Actors, 314 W. 54th St. | Through Jul. 7: Mon.-Tue., Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 3 p.m.; Sun. at 2 & 7 p.m. | $69-$89 at safewordtheplay.com | One hr., 40 mins., with no intermission
CAROLINE’S KITCHEN | 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St. | Through May 25: Tue..-Sat. at 7 p.m.; Sat.-Sun. at 2 p.m | $55-$70 at 59e59.org | Ninety mins., with no intermission