Off Broadway Reviews
Interestingly, Smoke is the second new work inspired by August Strindberg's Miss Julie to open this week, the other being Bastards of Strindberg at the Lion Theatre at Theatre Row. There's something about that 1888 play and its probing of unbridled sex, power, class, and gender warfare that continues to entice contemporary writers.
Like its source, Smoke is set in a kitchen. In this version, John (Stephen Stout) and Julie (Madeleine Bundy) have come separately into the kitchen to take a break during a raucous sex party that is taking place in the other room of the apartment. They strike up a conversation, share cigarettes, and gradually begin to work their way into a sexual encounter. Julie, who is 20, seems to be in the early stages of sexual experimentation, while John, who is 31, has been around the block. Knives are his shtick, while she is interested in dabbling in a little S&M, something she got into while a bored and disaffected student at Kenyon College.
The setup is completed when we discover that Johnlike Jean in Miss Julieis an employee of Julie's father, in this case a very demanding artist who expects John to be available 24/7. Similarly, John, like Jean, also has a girlfriend named Kristen. And while neither of these two significant outside characters shows up in the flesh, they do halt the proceedings several times via calls to John's cell phone.
The tone of Smoke bounces around between sitcom situations (all of those pre-coitus interruptions) and potentially disturbing moments, softened by the fact that John is extremely careful and gentle with Julie. Even when the knives come out, he talks her through every step he plans to take so as to assure her she will not be harmed.
The two performers, under the direction of Tom Costello, do a very good job with their roles, and the character of Julie is sufficiently drawn so that Ms. Bundy is able to show us her borderline instability as a neglected daughter of wealth with too much time and too little responsibility on her hands. The character of John, however, is a little too stable, and he clearly understands the difference between fantasy sex and the reality of the world from which these encounters serve as an escape. In the end, and despite a final harkening back to Miss Julie, the 75-minute play simply does not take enough risks. Too much smoke; too little fire.