How do you know when you’re safe? Is it when you’re home? Or when your loved ones are around you? What about when you were a teen … how did you know it then? There’s no doubt that being a teen-aged girl is a minefield and without the right road map a young girl will find herself in a dangerous, explosive situation. In the world of Safe playwright Penny Jackson has created just such a minefield for her two young characters, Nina and Liz. And then she creates a trap for them to run smack into.
There’s a great line that comes around two thirds into the play when one of the characters notes how kids who grow up in Manhattan are like homeless kids … they have homes but no one’s really raising them. And so it is for Nina (Debby Brand) and her best friend Liz (Alexandra Gjerpen). When we first meet Nina she’s dejectedly smoking a cigarette in her father’s big apartment, waiting for him to come home from yet another one of his business trips to notice that she’s now living with him. Apparently she’s been living there alone for two days, but the situation doesn’t seem to unsettle her. When her father does arrive he greets her perfunctorily, exchanges information much the way (one would think) he instructs his business partners to get him up to speed on a project, and distractedly inquires about her overall well being. When he acknowledges her smoking, the annoyance that bubbles up is regarding the fact that she was using an antique as an ashtray – not that she was using her lungs as a dumping ground for toxic chemicals. The best he can muster is a guess that she must be smoking to curb her appetite.
Her dad, Paul, (David Lamberton) is a workaholic who is divorced from Nina’s troubled alcoholic mother who lives in another state. Paul barely has time to finish a conversation before he’s answering another call, packing up for another trip, and making something else a priority. Well, at least he isn’t around to make another thoughtless comment about her (non-existent) weight problem. While one would rather see Nina in a safe haven of a home that has a parent in it, when it comes to this parent, maybe being alone is actually the lesser of two evils.
Young Liz’s home-life is no better; her mother encourages the anorexic/bulimic Liz to smoke pot so that she’ll have the munchies. Liz is the yin to Nina’s yang, both girls suffering from body issues. Liz has actually been hospitalized for her disorder which seemed to do nothing but give her an opportunity to explore her sexuality with a boy who was also there – and is no longer around. On the surface Nina and Liz take these rather jarring events of their young lives in stride, but there’s no denying all these thousand little cuts are taking their toll on each girl’s overall psychological health. So Nina and Liz do what unmonitored teen girls do best: they drink too much tequila, experiment with dangerous drugs (Liz unearths a hidden stash of Fen-Phen), and … perhaps worst of all, find themselves emotionally vulnerable to the first kind stranger who happens to cross their path.
At first Phillip (Nick Palladino) comes across as a helpful mentor, an understanding adult Nina happens upon in the Starbucks she uses as a place to do her homework and hang out. Phillip and Nina “meet cute” after she spills her coffee on him. This leads to some conversation which allows him to offer that, although he is a writer he was once a math tutor which makes it so perfect that she happens to be having trouble with math. She gets some help with her homework and is in his debt when he chivalrously leaves his umbrella for her. Like any other young teen she is immediately smitten and begins to fixate on her new friend.
With less and less making her feel safe at home she willingly dives into a burgeoning friendship with Phillip – and with no other adult to warn her off she finds the whole experience romantic and exhilarating. Even Liz’s admonishment merely sounds like jealousy to Nina’s ears. Phillip carefully plays his hand – he is understanding, he listens … he cares. He gives advice and encouragement to the awkwardly shy Nina – he takes her to the museum and compares her to the Rubens. He points out her beauty and encourages her inner strength. In the right setting he’d be doing her a world of good. But that’s what makes him so good at setting the trap.
After presenting a strong cautionary tale with believable circumstances playwright Jackson then leaves the story with a questionable ending with intentions that are undecipherable. The girls uncover Phillip for what he is, in the wake of which Nina has a near-suicide experience. All too suddenly she is seen flying off to her unstable mother (who is not expecting her) declaring herself healed and stronger for the experience and ready to take on the world.
This sudden switch feels manufactured and misdirected: the actual actions of Nina seem dangerous and ill-advised, while the sentiment of the ending is played as a happily every after moment. Perhaps the ending would ring truer for an older woman … an “I need to go find myself!” anthem, but here it sits as an out-0f-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire situation. I wasn’t convinced that Nina had grown enough, or that anyone – especially her work-obsessed father – had felt enough of an impact from the devastating chain of events to have learned anything. Rather than a happy ending, I saw this as a frightening one for this traumatized, confused, lost girl who needs to be parented properly. Nina needs to be counseled by a man with degrees on his wall, not a string of lies in his past. I feel that we were meant to be left hoping for Nina, but unfortunately after bringing her so far I feel as if she was simply left abandoned again.
However, aside from the ending, Jackson did an incredible job with the character of Phillip … probably one of the most difficult archetypes to capture. It was easy to understand why the young, aimless, desperate Nina would find Phillip so charming, so – yes – SAFE. Nick Palladino did a solid job of making the audience wonder at times if he really was just a misunderstood guy who had a lot of bad breaks and was just looking out for Nina with a platonic warmth. These are the hardest characters to create and Jackson wrote Phillip with a balanced pen. Palladino delivers a layered performance and gives the audience room to both understand his charm through the eyes of a teen while still see the red flags through the eyes of an adult.
Joan Kane’s direction is firm throughout; she understands how to coax out the subtle moments which needed to speak louder than the roar of general adolescence. Some of the most powerful scenes Kane created happened in the quiet seduction, such as when Phillip leaves his umbrella behind for Nina.
Safe, which benefits the National Eating Disorder Association, does a satisfying job of presenting the despair a teen girl with body issues faces – and the lengths she will got to in order to feel safe. However, as Nina points out – we all look to something to feel safe – be it work, alcohol, pills … it’s all various forms of our need to feel in control. The real warning here is not just for teens who may fall prey to charming men, but to parents who may put work before their children, to those who try to drink their stress away and find they suddenly can’t get through the day without a drink, or to people who find themselves unhealthily attracted to something that is clearly wrong. Penny Jackson’s message is explicit – if you’re out of control, get yourself to a place where you can feel Safe.
~~~Safe . Benefiting: National Eating Disorders Association
Produced by Ego Actus
Written by Penny Jackson
Directed by Joan Kane . $18 General Admission
$9.00 for Film/Music Participants
FREE for Theatre Festivity Participants . Friday 6/1/12 – 7:00pm = Performance #1
Saturday 6/2/12 – 3:00pm = Performance #2
Monday 6/4/12 – 10:00pm = Performance #3
Wednesday 6/6/12 – 4:00pm = Performance #4
Saturday 6/9/12 – 8:00pm = Performance #5
Thursday 6/14/12 – 6:00pm = Performance #6 . 90 minutes . At Bleecker Street Theatre (Upstairs)
45 Bleecker Street, New York, NY 10012
Conveniently located near:
Bleecker St (4 & 6)
Broadway – Lafayette St (B, D, F, M)
Prince St (N, R) click here to purchase tickets