Directed by Joan Kane
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
The short description of “Safe” provided by the producers indicates that Penny Jackson’s play is about Nina, “an affluent prep school girl from the East [who] meets a dangerous man” and raises the question whether Nina “will be safe.” The wonderful thing about Ms. Jackson’s play is that the audience is never quite sure whether the dangerous man is suspected sex offender Phillip Goodrich (played with stunning brilliance by Nick Palladino) or Nina’s father Paul (played with the right dash of creepiness by David Lamberton). “Safe” is brimming with moral ambiguity and serves up a delicious taste of what is right and what, ultimately, is wrong.
After her mother’s forced visit to rehab in Minnesota, Nina Foster is forced to stay with her estranged father in New York City (one assumes Central Park West) and during the visit all hell breaks loose. Debby Brand gives the audience a remarkable performance as the troubled teenager who is deeply searching for someone who knows how to love her and know “what she needs.” Nina does not need her father’s inability to connect on any level and she certainly does not need her anorexic-bulimic friend Liz (Carolyn Cutillo) to bring her sister’s abandoned infant to Nina’s new digs to encourage Nina into all sorts of unsafe territory (alcohol, illegal diet drugs, etc.). What Nina seems to need is a friendship-relationship with the apparently unsafe character Phillip.
To Liz’s credit, she suspects Phillip is grooming Nina for sexual exploitation and in a wonderful over-the-top performance Carolyn Cutillo portrays a friend who will stop at nothing to seduce Nina’s new squeeze and prove to Nina he is a sex-offender. But it is never clear who really is the offender in Ms. Jackson’s play. Neither is it clear who is safe to be with and where it might be safe to be. On the day of Nina’s arrival, her father tells a caller that he can continue his call because Nina is “just the maid.” Liz accurately observes that – like her sister – “people vanish all the time!” So much for safe havens.
When Nina first meets Phillip at Starbucks, he shares with her that he “once saved a girl” while he was teaching high school math. One wonders whether this “dangerous man” had anything to do with saving Nina and helping her “get what she wants in life,” her credo after surviving an attempted suicide with Liz’s “gift” of Fen-Phen. After all, he visits Nina in the hospital, introduces himself with his real name, and gives his sports jacket to Paul to keep him warm in the overly air-conditioned hospital waiting room.
Under Joan Kane’s lustrous direction, “Safe’s” cast of four emotionally thrashes about Theater C at 59E59 and invites the audience into the real world of teenage angst with honest performances about authentic concerns. “Safe” will do well at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and should come back to New York City with a new run.