Credit: Mati Gelman

Midnight Theatricals presents safeword., the newest work by playwright/director S. Asher Gelman (Afterglow).

For those unfamiliar with the initialism ‘BDSM’, it describes role-play involving bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism. A new play by the playwright of Afterglow which involves BDSM might call to mind some steamy, sexy, gay bondage tale, but safeword. is about so much more.

Just to set the stage:  as the audience enters, it takes in a split-level stage, immersed in red. On the lower level is a modern yet cozy New York apartment; above, a simple platform and railing. The set extends to the sides of the theater,  windows and brick impressed on scrim and drenched in more red.

The play begins on the upper portion of the stage, in shadow; two unidentified men are engaged in dom/sub play which escalates until the “safeword” is spoken, after which the dom holds the sub in a healing embrace.  

It is during this domination episode that we are first introduced to the gender-queer Chris (Maybe Burke) and Lauren (Traci Elaine Lee), a woman of color, as they enter the lower level of the stage. Chris and Lauren have apparently been neighbors for some time but have only just officially met. As they share a glass of wine to celebrate their new friendship, they vow to meet up again.

In separate scenes which follow, we meet Chris’ black partner Xavier, aka “X” (Jimmy Brooks) and Lauren’s white husband Micah (Joe Chisolm), and it isn’t until a dinner date with the four of them together that the audience learns, through moments of clever lighting and staging, that X and Micah are the dom and sub (respectively) in the scene that opens the play.

From this kick off point, safeword. explores many facets of the relationships between the four characters:  Chris and X’s sub/dom roles in sex are subtly reversed in their non-sexual roles in their personal life, as Chris ultimately controls X by his refusal to let X move in. Lauren, infused with distrust upon learning of Micah’s secret BDSM needs, nevertheless implores X to teach her more about domination so she can understand Micah’s needs better. The openly gender-fluid sub Chris calls Michah to task for lying to his wife, and for lacking the courage to expose his secretive straight sub existence; Lauren, upon failing to use X’s domination lessons to fulfill Micah’s BDSM needs, opts to to apply them toward cooking, using Chris as her sub-ject. safeword. thoughtfully and carefully uncovers these themes through excellent writing and the appreciable talents of its cast.

Burke as the gender-queer Chris is confident, powerful and brimming with self-truth; Brooks as the dom Xavier is sexy and imposing, yet tender and yearning; Lee’s portrayal as Lauren is confounded and stubborn but willing, determined and committed; Chisolm’s tortured Micah is troubled, heartrending, earnest and real. More perfect actors could not have been found to portray these complicated but sincere people, and under Gelman’s splendid direction this play makes for a moving and thought-provoking evening of theater.

The scenic design by Ann Beyersdorfer and lighting design by Jamie Roderick are both absolutely brilliant. Together, they convey time and space with enterprising prowess, providing the actors and director with a variety of fantastic planes on which to tell this tale. Sound design by Kevin Heard perfectly sets the mood and urgency where necessary, and the costume design by Fabian Fidel Aguilar is spot on for each of the characters.

Explore your own boundaries. Go see safeword.

safeword. plays through July 7th, 2019 at The American Theatre of Actors, 314 West 54th Street, in Manhattan. For tickets call 866-811-4111 or visit here.

Running time: two hours; one ten-minute intermission is mentioned in the program although there was no intermission (and it was not missed).