Theatre Exile's 'Smoke': Two sexy leads, lots of sex, but no real play

SMOKE
Matteo J. Scammell and Merci Lyons-Cox in Theatre Exile's production of "Smoke," by Kim Davies. Photo: Robert Hakalski.

If anybody could scorch a stage, it's these two sexy, talented actors, Matteo Scammell and Merci Lyons-Cox, who are currently starring in Theatre Exile's production of Smoke. But to really heat things up, they'd have to be in an actual play - something with fire and not just empty smoke.

Billed as an "erotic thriller," Kim Davies' exercise in sadomasochism is puzzling. Is it supposed to shock us? Turn us on? Provide a cautionary tale? Educate the bourgeoisie about the fun and games at sex parties in New York and teach them the lingo about "het dom" (dominant heterosexual) and open relationships defined as "poly"?

John and Julie meet cute in a kitchen - the party noises are audible but eventually fade away. There is lots of flirty talk and much smoking of cigarettes, during which we learn that her father is a famous artist and John is his intern. That he is 31 and still interning is a measure of how desperate he is to keep the job. She's 20 and rich and beautiful and eager to experiment in dangerous sex games. This is an easy knock-off of Strindberg's Miss Julie (same names, same set-up) with a millennial twist - but the power games are the same old power games between male and female, servant and aristocrat.

Neither of Davies' characters is sufficiently developed or substantial enough to care about. He's a wannabe artist with a veneer of downtown sophistication but no real talent, and she's an empty-headed thrill-seeker whose plans are "to do as little as possible with my life." The result is that we are engaged only in the most superficial ways. Will he cut her? His backpack comes equipped with a set of knives.

Deborah Block directs - really choreographs - the dangerous sex play, and both Scammell and Lyons-Cox are remarkably bold and brave in their performances. But there is a moment when John asks Julie, "How creepy am I?" and she replies, "Pretty creepy," which pretty much sums up Smoke.

Through March 13. Theatre Exile at Studio X, 1340 S. 13th St. Tickets: $10-40. Information: 215-218-4022 or www.theatreexile.org.