Off-Off-Broadway Theater Review: SMOKE (The Bats at The Flea Theatre)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on September 7, 2014

in Theater-New York


Stephen Stout & Madeleine Bundy in SMOKE at The FleaThe premise of Kim Davies’ new play Smoke, that two strangers, a young man and woman, who independently come to the kitchen to have a cigarette while a friendly S&M sex party is taking place in the rest of the apartment, and who wind up having a meaningful interaction, is like a minefield with potential disaster looming over every step. Pretentiousness, sensationalism, coyness, and a fundamental lack of insight so often plagues works of this kind that finding one that’s actually worthwhile seems almost hopeless. Which is one reason Ms. Davies’ creation is so remarkable.

Madeleine Bundy & Stephen Stout in SMOKE at The FleaIts naturalistic elegance and simplicity, its admirable exclusion of oratory that tries to inject sexual fetishes with spiritual significance, its focus on the immediate realities of the characters, its overall sophistication concerning human interactions in the context of their sexual adventures, and its tightness make this a superior and, in its way, flawless work. But all that said, the true standouts in this amazing show are the director, Tom Costello, and his two actors, Madeleine Bundy and Stephen Stout.

John (Mr. Stout) is a little guy, a polite 31-year-old hipster Het-Dom with small hands and artistic aspirations, who works as an assistant (more like an indentured servant) to an extraordinarily demanding and successful artist. While smoking alone in the kitchen he is joined by Julie (Ms. Bundy), a 20-year-old S&M novice, whose outfit (understated costumes by Lee Kenney) suggests apprehensive lasciviousness—she looks like a “schoolgirl” looking to get “raped.” We quickly learn that she is John’s boss’s daughter. And it seems she’s come to the sex party to investigate certain personal longings which she hasn’t as yet had fulfilled.

Madeleine Bundy in SMOKE at The FleaIn the wrong hands, this show, despite its solid script, could easily turn into a debacle. But Mr. Costello nourishes his actors, giving them not only enough space and time to act, but to be. The sense is that he grows the performances like living beings, not forcing but guiding them until they develop into the best organisms that they can be. It’s a brilliant display of what inspiration, combined with a mastery of directorial craft, can accomplish.

Nuanced in the extreme, Mr. Stout’s performance captures his character with exciting precision and subtlety. Ms. Bundy is nothing short of stellar: Even in the moments when she appears to be doing nothing, she’s so intriguing and so vibrant that one can’t look away—not only because of her beauty, charisma, and captivating stage presence, but because everything that is happening both to her and to her character is vital and immediate. She never indicates this; we know it from looking at her. Her performance seems to transcend things like acting skills, choices. Her investment feels complete. She is Julie. And it is only at curtain call that we can glimpse in her face the emotional exhaustion of playing this part.

Madeleine Bundy in SMOKE at The Flea

photos by Hunter Canning

The Bats at The Flea Theater
41 White Street between Church and Broadway
ends on September 28, 2014
EXTENDED to February 1, 2015
for tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit The Flea

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