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A CurtainUp Review

The photographer destroys the event. Are events unfolding because of me, or despite me? Is it a coincidence that every time I raise my camera to my face the man next to me fires his gun? --- Michael

David Wilson Barnes and  Jeffrey Clarke in <i>Safety</i
David Wilson Barnes and Jeffrey Clarke in Safety
(Photo: Jim Baldassare)
In an introductory program note, playwright Chris Thorpe explains that Safety was borne from his fascination with news photographs. He declares that while his central character is not based on any particular photographer, that he does share many of the contradictions and difficulties common to front-line journalists. He further concedes that he may not be entirely likeable. You can say that again. Michael (David Wilson Barnes), is a British photographer who has covered enough wars to boggle one's mind. He may, as Thorpe claims, "be unquestionably brave, committed and necessary" -- but he's so caddish that it's difficult to rustle up much admiration or empathy for him.

With television and newspapers constantly barraging us with horrific images from the never-ceasing conflicts erupting around the globe, it's easy enough to understand Mr. Thorpe's fascination with the photographers who risk and often lose their lives as they document the ravages of war. His exploration of the psychological toll that combat photography takes of the men behind the cameras is certainly the stuff of fascinating and timely drama. And at times during the 20 scenes that unfold over the course of eighty uninterrupted minutes, we do get caught up in how a profession that pays well -- and in Michael's case brings the prestige of having his photographs exhibited in a London gallery -- can harden a man so that his disillusioned wife Susan(Katie Firth) views the man who was once "amazing," as someone to whom she no longer can or wants to talk. (As she puts it: "Talking to you used to be a pleasure. . .I used to dread the phone ringing because it might mean you'd been killed. Now I just worry that I might have to talk to you.")

Thorpe has given his rumination a plausible enough back story with am interesting twist -- when Michael's young daughter falls into a lake, he is frozen into his role as an uninvolved observer so that it takes a passing stranger to save her from drowning. This is enough to jog him into a take stock mode. The introduction of Sean (Jeffrey Clarke) the rescuer, into the home that is turning into a domestic war zone adds another dimension, with Sean serving as something of echo and contrast to Michael. He's not too educated and has retreated from life to the point where he doesn't even read a newspaper, but not to the extent that he won't jump into the cold water of the lake when he sees Michael and Susan's child drowning -- and not too slow-witted to see through Michael's facile, almost hostile behavior when he is invited to the couple's London home.

Michael's affair with Tanya (Susan Molloy), a celebrity journalist, somehow make Safety too facile -- too safe, if you will. Tanya falls in love with Michal's "art" and the glamour associated with it as much as with the man, but she can no more penetrate the wall he's built around himself than Susan.

Unfortunately, the only character who really makes a lasting impression is the unlikeable Michael, powerfully portrayed by David Wilson Barnes. Though all the actors inhabit their roles and accents convincingly their characters lack the fire and depth to make them memorable or to cause us to care deeply about any of them. The accents, supervised by dialect coach Amy Stoller who has gussied up her job description to Dialect Designer, are a bit too thick initially.

The action segues forward and backward in terms of time and place: from a London Hotel room, to Michael and Susan's home, to the theater that is "Michael's World," and to a bombed out house somewhere in the Balkans in 1994. The best scenes tend to be the interior monologues from Michael that frequently follow his interaction with the other characters.

Kevin Judge's spartan set and Patricia Nichols intense lighting serve the numerous shifts in time, place and structure well, but a little less spareness and starkness would not have lessened the set's effectiveness. Most problematic is the way director Daisy Walker uses the panel at one side of the stage. While the characters' many abrupt exits through its two adjoining doors are clearly intended to remind us of a camera clicking a series of snapshots, the effect tends to be more that of overdone blackouts, or scene endings punctuated with double exclamation marks instead of periods. Since the panels suspended at the opposite side of the stage beg for, but never deliver any projected images to build on the terrifying nature of the war scenes, it's pretty much left to sound designer Samuel Doerr to create the required tension.

Ultimately, the relevance of the subject matter fails to deliver the really powerful dramatic tension you might expect. However, the play does linger in the mind. What stays with you long after it's over is not Michael and Susan's story but the reality of its many ongoing variations.

Playwright: Chris Thorpe
Directed by Daisy Walker
Cast: Michael (David Wilson Barnes), Tanya (Susan Molloy, Susan (Katie Firth), Sean (Jeffrey Clarke)
Set Design: Kevin Judge
Costume Design: Kevin Christiana
Lighting Design: Patricia Nichols
Original Music & Sound Design: Samuel Doerr Dialect Designer: Amy Stoller
Running time: Approximately 80 minutes without an intermission
Crash Landing Productions at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street SmartTix 212-868-4444
1 /20/06 to 2/12/06.
Tickets: $15 General Admission/Open Seating.

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on January21st press performance
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