nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
January 21, 2006
The spotlight is narrow and sharp in Chris Thorpe’s smart play about the ravages of war. In a compelling ensemble performance currently showing at Urban Stages, Safety zooms in on a celebrated war photographer and captures the chilling psychological effects that war—as work—has on him and his family.
It begins in flashback with Michael, an arrogant photojournalist, being interviewed in a London hotel room by Tanya, an attractive reporter, about the upcoming exhibition of his pictures. She is familiar with his most famous photo, a picture referenced throughout the play. It is of a teenager running toward the camera with his gun extended toward the photographer. A body lies in the background. Tanya questions what happened before and after the photo was taken, wonders about the cumulative effect of such scenes on Michael, as she initially declines offers from the mini bar—but not Michael’s subsequent advances.
Once home in Northern England, we meet Michael’s wife, Susan, a translator who speaks seven languages, none of which help her understand the husband she once loved and now resents because he is always away. When he is home, they are in verbal combat. Fueling Susan’s resentment is the near drowning of their daughter, Alice, under Michael’s watch. A stranger saves Alice, and Susan invites him to dinner to thank him. Sean, the young, unpolished stranger, stands in relief to the urbane couple. He has served time, never reads a paper, sees Michael’s photographs as a bunch of dead people, and knows that Michael was torn between saving his daughter and capturing her drowning on film. The scenes alternate between the hotel flashbacks and the couple’s home, with additional scenes of Michael alone telling the audience what haunts him. One other setting, a bombed-out house in the Balkans where Michael dodges bullets, serves more to divert from the tight focus otherwise maintained throughout the play.
David Wilson Barnes shows us Michael in all his complexity: arrogant, defensive, impenetrable, and afraid. In denial, he states, “It’s never my fight,” not realizing that the brutality he sees through the lens prevents him from living his life without the camera. His fight should be for his survival. Of those he captures on film he says, “The dying see everything. You can’t hide.” He could be referring to himself, as a part of his humanity dies with each snapshot of another atrocity. During the monologue scenes, Barnes shows vulnerability that is all but otherwise hidden.
Susan Molloy gives her young reporter a sunny disposition in awe of her subject. It is clear from the start that she will land in bed with Michael.
Katie Firth balances the wounded wife with the intellectually accomplished woman. In the couple’s first scene together, Michael begins a conversation, “You forget, you know,” which sets her off into a long diatribe on the meaning of those four words. Firth segues from one interpretation to another, lending indifference, sarcasm, wit, and hurt to her monologue—all with the dead-on aim of a sharpshooter. This is a standout scene in Thorpe’s script, both in his writing and in Firth’s performance. It demonstrates the dexterity and nuance that his character, Susan, practices in her job and at the same time shows Susan and Michael’s strained relationship.
Sean’s appearance at dinner doesn’t help. Jeffrey Clarke gives Sean the necessary awkwardness to show he is out of his element. Nevertheless, it is he who maintains the upper hand that evening. His presence reminds Michael of his failure to save Alice, and while Sean is not a scintillating conversationalist, he listens to Susan, something Susan has not experienced in a long time. Thorpe ratchets up the psychological drama by dropping at least one additional piece of information in each of 15 scenes. With all the reveals, there should have been at least a hint along the way of Michael’s final secret.
The one-act play, directed neatly by Daisy Walker, takes place in a beautiful, modernistic set designed by Kevin Judge that convincingly covers all but the bombed out house in the Balkans. Toward the end, the set shifts dramatically. The change is more jarring than telling. Patricia Nichols’s lighting is very effective in defining time and place and sheds a glow of warmth over the two side-by-side doorways even before the show begins. Kevin Christiana’s costumes work well. It is clear that Michael doesn’t need a mirror to dress in the morning or a designer to provide the garments. He is a man caught up in his mission. Samuel Doerr wrote original music and is responsible for sound design.
Safety points out the fragility of mankind, emotionally, psychologically, and physically. It is a thoughtful play that provides no net for its free-falling characters.