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'Safe Space' review: Racial tensions fuel flawed but provocative premiere

Mercedes Ruehl and Rodney Richardson star in "Safe

Mercedes Ruehl and Rodney Richardson star in "Safe Space" at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Photo Credit: Lenny Stucker

WHAT "Safe Space"

WHEN | WHERE Through July 21, Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor

INFO $40-$135; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org
BOTTOM LINE New playwright shows promise with a provocative work exploring racial tensions.

Imagine being a young writer and your first play is about to be produced at a highly respected regional theater. In the cast, an actress with both an Oscar and a Tony to her name. The director, a multiple Tony winner. Likewise the design team.
This is no theatrical fantasy for Alan Fox, a former college basketball player and model whose play "Safe Space" is running at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor through July 21, the second world premiere staged there this summer. Pinch him, please.

Fox delivers a work that while not perfect suggests great potential, a provocative 90-minute play that addresses enough current hot-button issues to keep the audience involved and entertained. The setting is an elite university, where Marcus Wood (Rodney Richardson), an admired African-American adjunct professor months away from tenure, is confronted by Asian-American student Jenny Oshiro (Sasha Diamond) with potentially career-ending charges of racism.

Faced with a disaster in the making (influential alums are on campus for an annual fundraising event), university president Judith Rose (Mercedes Ruehl) has no choice but to intervene, walking an increasingly dangerous tightrope as she attempts to defuse escalating racial, religious and gender tensions. Words like triggers, bullying and threatened come up often. (The play's title is taken from a student demand for a "safe space" for students of color.)

The most compelling performance comes from Richardson as Marcus, whose early pontificating during a lecture suggests a man so enchanted with his own ideas that he doesn’t always realize he might be getting himself in trouble. And Diamond gives us an intelligent depiction of Jenny, a conflicted young woman fighting to stay true to her ideals while fending off a demanding mother with very specific career goals for her daughter.  

Unfortunately Ruehl, whose recent turn as the overbearing mother in "Torch Song" on Broadway was perfection, seems out of her element as a university president, lacking the necessary stature and gravitas (in part because she seemed to be struggling with lines).

Lauded theater vet Jack O’Brien ("Hairspray," "All My Sons") directs with a steady hand and the A-list design team — David Rockwell, scenic design; Jane Greenwood, costumes; Bradley King, lighting — makes for an elegant production. But the young playwright falls victim to a common newbie mistake, with an uncomfortably abrupt end (the audience seemed truly befuddled when actors started appearing for the curtain call) that leaves the characters hanging. That there's no clear right or wrong here is a given with this subject matter, but the piece needs a more graceful conclusion.

 

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