Playwright: Ashley J. Jacobson
Director: Cezar Williams
Off Broadway at The Kraine Theater, 85 East 4th Street
Columnist: Rachel E. Diken
How To Be Safe, written by Ashley J. Jacobson, is the 24th production of The Dirty Blondes, where she is Artistic Director. (The Dirty Blondes is a self-described feminist theater company “with a taste for provocation,” and currently sits as company-in-residence at The Kraine Theater.) While not shying away from some of the extremes that can accompany mental illness—the playbill includes a self-harm disclaimer—the variety of off-kilter behaviors are written tastefully and handled deftly by leading actors Jenna D’Angelo, Faith Sandberg, and Brandon Ferraro.
In the apartment where Audrey (Sandberg) lives alone, her pet fish and the omnipresent flashing blue tint of the TV are her only companions. We quickly ascertain the degree of overwhelm that results from her hyper-sensory tendencies, as well as the pain caused by others’ accusations of her “overreacting.” Audrey binge-watches Law & Order, similar homicide-focused shows, and the news, from which she derives her perception of “realness” (which, consequentially, aggravates her already heightened anxiety).
Her foil, Willow (D’Angelo), is a case of tragic-enticing-unbearable—a trope rife with potential to either engage or fall flat, and in the care of feminist hands here accomplishes the former. A self-harmer and recovering addict prone to casually seducing men, she claims her primary ailment as an affliction of “numbness.”
Ferraro alternately plays the male lead as Scott, who is a recovery counselor, and briefly the smaller roles of barista and pizza delivery guy. Ferraro-as-barista is initially attracted to Willow, but becomes reasonably disenchanted when she incorporates a large knife into the foreplay. In the lengthier storyline where Willow seduces her counselor Scott, the male ego is easily manipulated as she stages the fling with hopes that it will help her to “feel something.”
Afterward, Scott first claims responsibility for his lack of professionalism in the encounter, then becomes briefly punitive in a halfhearted attempt to compensate, but is swiftly swooning again and inviting Willow to move in with him. When he catches her with fresh cuts on her arm, she keeps help at a distance by way of threats: half-wise in evaluating his immature motives, half-self-defeating in attempting to preserve her established (albeit unhealthy) coping mechanisms.
In one scene where Audrey and Willow meet, Audrey’s heartbeat is heard over the sound system, viscerally communicating the intensity of her condition. Another powerful auditory element is the simultaneous clock-ticking heard across the split-stage of Willow’s group therapy session and Audrey’s TV cave, both demonstrations of Almeda Beynon’s brilliantly conceived sound design.
After a conflict and satisfying dramatic swell of catharsis, Willow respects Audrey’s request that she leave. Unlike her departure from the group home, where she makes sure to keep her cutting shard in tow, she leaves the shard behind at Audrey’s in plain view. Willow has found a space and a person safe enough to surrender her weapon to, signaling a new willingness to let go of old harmful ways before they destroy more of her future.
Willow later returns with a gift, her first step outside the vortex of self by directing her energy toward thoughtfulness for someone else. The audience is deliberately grounded in the significance of this shift, and the childlike simplicity of the exchange is an effective balance to the prior exploration of complex mental health issues.
By the final scene, Willow’s volatile universe and its rapidly shifting set design has quieted, and Audrey’s erstwhile static habitat gets a change of perspective. Both female characters retain more evolved versions of their flaws, but the previously darker humor now has an infusion of buoyancy.
During the time Audrey and Willow spend together, they bond over the writing of Sylvia Plath, a poet whose own mental struggles ended in suicide. Plath, and the specter of suicide, is echoed in the flawed and sometimes dangerous habits of the two unlikely friends. In opposite ways, the characters’ attempts to keep themselves safe are illogically maladaptive. But since both women fall outside the spectrum of perceived normalcy, they’re able to feel a specific tenderness for and understanding of each other.
The heavy subject in How To Be Safe could’ve been overbearing, but Jacobson punctuates the dramatic moments with humor keeping the beat realistic and compelling and granting leeway for occasional detours into poetic soliloquy.