If there are two things that are al¬ways gripping on the stage, it’s the dy¬namic between two people struggling for power, and two people who expect to end their encounter with raw, un¬bridled sex. This parallel has fascinated psychologists, scholars, and ordinary people for centuries. We see it played out again and again, often subtly or in metaphor; other times, it’s right out in the open, for everyone to watch.
That was the case in “A Safe, Familiar Place,” Second Stage’s first student-written offering of the sea¬son. Written and directed by Anthony Smith ’11, “A Safe, Familiar Place” seems superficially like the first half-hour of a feature length bondage porno. A woman arrives at a man’s apartment late one night in New York: he has an¬swered her advertisement looking for a one-night role-playing stand. It seems like a pretty typical—almost stereotypi¬cal—setup. Practically from the door, though, things take an interesting turn, as Smith begins toying with and even¬tually breaking the stereotypes associ¬ated with the alternative sex lifestyle.
The young woman of the play, Claire (Cordelia Blanchard ’12), seems from the very beginning off-kilter, even unstable: she seems to be acting ruth¬lessly against herself, denying her in¬stincts (that scream at her to run out the door) in a relentless search for…what? Sex, yes, but not just sex; she’s very determined to be submissive, to be—in her own words—humiliated. She’s the stereotypical bondage girl: a woman who, despite all else, secretly wants to be abused or humiliated. Ms. Blanchard brought this bizarre, some¬times frightening determination to life in a power¬ful and nuanced performance, also bringing the char¬acter a fierce sense of independence that sharpened even further the contrast between what she wants and what she does: when told that her humiliation is good for her, she responds dryly (almost sourly), “I don’t know if licking your toe counts as growing as a person.”
The man, Jackson (Howe Pearson ’12), seems to be much more at ease in the situation, which is understandable, given that power rests—or appears to rest—in his hands. Mr. Pearson played Jackson with a cavalier friendliness and patriarchal attitude that fits his stereo¬type to a T: he was commanding and arrogant, the perfect dominating type. Jackson, however, also seems to be a bit shadier than usual, even for his “type”: he knows more about Claire than he should, playing off little slips of infor¬mation he picked up from e-mails or casual conversation. He plays the per¬fect host, though, and certainly seems willing to give Claire what she—hesi¬tantly—requests.
Everything has changed, though, by the end of the play. Throughout the play, the characters seem to be locked in a struggle between Jackson’s casual cru¬elty and Claire’s perverse, but nonethe¬less desperate, need, which is the way the relationship is normally conducted. But something happens—one person takes it too far—and everything falls away, revealing the characters in their true forms. This sex, we as an audi¬ence suddenly realize, is supposed to be role-playing, nothing more; when it be¬comes more, it is truly frightening.
It is not the person you would expect who goes over the edge: Claire, while sucking on the barrel of a “load¬ed” gun as part of the foreplay, sud¬denly seizes it and begins trying to shoot herself. Jackson is shocked, hor¬rified. When she realizes that the gun hasn’t killed her, she looks up at Jackson and says, “I thought you…” to which he says, “No. Of course not. This…what we’re doing is just…playing, ya know?…I’m just a decent guy who likes to play around.” Everything is reversed: Jackson is frightened and confused; Claire seems exhausted and disturbed. Jackson becomes the lost one, and Claire becomes the one who frightens us most. We realize that what we have seen, in fact, is just role-play, not real¬ity—and that sometimes reality