Kevin Judge’s set design for “Safety” is all too apropos. Chris Thorpe’s new play, landing Stateside after appearing in 2002’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, follows a British war photographer who must reconsider his relationship with horror after watching his daughter almost drown. Judge sets the play in an all-white space, where large frames surround empty canvasses and light shines sickly off the walls. While the minimalist layout suits the artsy protagonist, it also provides an unintentional metaphor for the production: blankness that never gets filled.
Though it places photographer Michael (David Wilson Barnes) in several volatile scenarios, Thorpe’s script operates on the premise that the character is far more interesting than any situation that might involve him.
Therefore, we’re presented with two underdeveloped arcs. One follows Michael’s predictable affair with a journalist (Susan Molloy), relying on standard speeches about guilt and passion. The other thread has more promise, centering on Michael’s awkward dinner with wife Susan (Katie Firth) and Sean (Jeffrey Clarke), the strange young man who saved his child from drowning.
Clark makes Sean intriguingly pensive, and he seems downright unstable as he belittles Michael for failing to help his own child. At first their interactions promise a juicy psychological showdown, and director Daisy Walker ramps up the tension with blocking that uses height and distance to delineate power.
But Thorpe thwarts dramatic momentum by cutting away from these scenes after just a few moments, returning instead to Michael’s trite affair or (worse yet) letting him deliver ponderous monologues to the audience about the deep meaning of war photography. Walker can’t finesse the quick cuts, and she slows the pace further by having cast members exit in half-light, dropping character as they head stone-faced for the wings.
With the dinner scene’s movement destroyed, the only throughline becomes Michael’s inner journey as he bounces among locales. It’s hard, however, to engage with a character this unsurprising. From his endless chain-smoking to his claim that photographers should look through a lens but “never, ever look in the bathroom mirror,” he’s a collection of theatrical shortcuts that are meant to create a tortured soul.
Equally predictable, Barnes’ perf relies on squinty stares and sarcastic line delivery to phone in Michael’s torment. He’s so disconnected from his acting that when Michael finally reveals the truth about his wartime past, Barnes can barely muster a new vocal inflection to describe it. This leaves “Safety’s” biggest bombshell as one more detail in a barely developed picture.