Review: ‘Smoke’ and mirrors

Matteo Scammell and Merci Lyons-Cox in Theatre Exile's production of 'Smoke.' (Photo courtesy of Paola Nogueras)

Matteo Scammell and Merci Lyons-Cox in Theatre Exile's production of 'Smoke.' (Photo courtesy of Paola Nogueras)

Let’s get kinky. I mean for real. The suspension ropes are fine, and the whips are welcome anytime. The needles? Eh… Take ’em or leave ’em. But make sure to bring the knives.

After all, the extreme stuff is why we’re invited to this kinky-sex party-in-a-play called “Smoke,” which is being hosted by Theatre Exile. And smoke is just what the play’s two characters, a guy and gal, do most of the time during its 90 minutes, when they’re not fooling threateningly with each other. They light up one ciggie, then another, then another. (They never even think of burning one another for pleasure, though, so what kind of a sado-kink romp is this, anyway?)

The joke here is that the two characters have taken a break from the public rough sex, etc., in the other rooms by coming into the kitchen of the party’s host, where they close the door, open the window, and do something taboo at the apartment: They smoke cigarettes. The kitchen is where they meet and discover that they guy is the intern of the gal’s famous-artist father, which somehow leads to them getting it on in a cutting-edge way.

I’m not writing anything more about playwright Kim Davies’ plot, and not because I don’t want to give it away, There is, in fact, nothing else to give away. “Smoke” is as empty as it is seedy — a gratuitous 90-minute road to rough and dangerous sex dressed up in a play’s clothing. You could argue that despite its theatrical pointlessness, the script’s depiction of people who desire sexual pleasure from domination, submission, danger and revenge gives voice to the folks who call themselves kinksters; if I were you, I wouldn’t celebrate a voice that says so little in “Smoke.” Mostly, you can dismiss it as an example of the way intensity alone — it’s highly intense in Deborah Block’s production — doesn’t make a workable piece of theater.

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So much for the play, or the hint of one. As for the production, Block doesn’t miss a moment for discomfort, and she has two fine actors –Matteo Scammell and Merci Lyons-Cox – who make the simulations seem very real, and their banter, too. That small talk is guarded at first, just as it would be between two strangers, even at a sex party. But as the characters become more familiar, the repartee is bolder and more scary in the delivery, look and body language of both Scammell and Lyons-Cox, who raise whatever bar this play has by their natural portrayals.

The result is raw, and it might have you squirming in your seat. There’s nothing wrong with being uncomfortable when you see a work whose passion for something unjust or unthinkable gives you insights and a sense that you’ve been hit with ideas you never considered. That’s art. As for this outing, where there’s “Smoke,” there’s no fire.


“Smoke,” produced by Theatre Exile, runs through March 13 at Studio X, 13th and Reed Streets in South Philadelphia. 215-218-4022 or


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