What happens when you’re at a private fetish party, and you bump into the daughter of your boss? Such is the premise of Kim Davies’ Smoke. Julie (Kristen Winters) meets John (Vincent Santvoord) in the kitchen of the flat – a supposedly neutral space in a wider environment of kink, desire and rules. Set in a contained and lavish New York apartment, Davies’ writing is at its best when it presents a rapid-fire investigation of communication, sex and power.
A rapid-fire investigation of communication, sex and power
Although kink is the backdrop to Smoke, there is very little of it in Davies’ script. There are references to sex going on elsewhere in the flat, and stories of experiences at previous fetish nights. Some of these stories are pedestrian, some are gruesome. Davies presents kink with a kind of offhand shrug; it is not fetishized. Similarly, the staging of Smoke casually presents the idea that groups of beautiful and sexually adventurous people are enjoying themselves right outside the boxy space of Zoo Playground. Davies quickly bookends the world of hook-ups as a matter of ‘if you want to do it, it’s probably there’. This is not a play about sex.
A lot of the content in Smoke is about how we communicate sex, and the script very quickly becomes problematic. Conversation goes from chains and whips, to depictions of sexual assault, to simulations of torture. Davies’ script acknowledges the importance of consent in a group-sex environment, but suddenly accelerates through issues of consent when we are presented with communication and trust between two individuals. It sometimes feels like the script moves too fast into content that requires a lot of artistic safeguarding and duty of care.
Where Smoke really does excel is that Winters and Santvoord bring extremely tight and muscular performances to the play, and essentially airlift the script away from danger. Their battle over space is a delight to watch and the blocking of their movements is precise and perceptive. Winters and Santvoord are pronounced and both ultimately quite unlikeable as Julie and John. The dialogue in Smoke often feels jagged and awkward, and the more John and Julie talk about what they want, the further they get from being able to offer each other the fantasy. Their ability to overlap lines of conversation is meticulously directed.
At the end of the day, smoking is the only thing that the two characters can share without hurting each other. Davies’ assessment of dominance and submission feels like a plea for more kindness, planning and attention. Powerhouse performances from Winters and Santvoord make a claustrophobic experience uncomfortable; the kink outside is far safer than what presides within that kitchen.