Most people have stopped believing that cameras can steal souls. Chris Thorpe is apparently less sure.
True, his new play Safety - which just opened at Urban Stages - doesn't trade at all in the primitive, tribal beliefs we usually associate with that idea. Thorpe's world is our world, and he argues persuasively - if never invigoratingly - that the click of a camera shutter can be one of the most devastating of weapons. Not just to the subject, or the person viewing the final product, but to the photographer himself, who can too easily sacrifice some of himself while bringing the world to others.
This unflinching, unjudging character study is centered on Michael (David Wilson Barnes), a British photojournalist who's made his name and his career in war zones. He's taken every chance imaginable to document the atrocities of war, and has received great acclaim, but can't point his lens inward as easily: He's begun carrying on an affair with a reporter (Susan Molloy) who's trying to profile him, he's on the outs with his wife (Katie Firth), and their daughter was rescued from drowning by an alert man (Jeffrey Clarke) who acted while Michael just looked helplessly on.
As skillfully directed by Daisy Walker, scenes unfold like a series of snapshots: Michael's being interviewed, now he's lecturing about his unique art, now he's bickering with his wife about inviting their daughter's rescuer for drinks, now he's ducking from gunfire as he strives to get in a perfect shot of his own. The coolly modern set, rendered almost entirely in white by set designer Kevin Judge and carefully lit by Patricia Nichols, recalls both a posh art gallery and an upscale living room, and allows for instantaneous (and occasionally startling) transitions between locales.
Despite this, the play is usually inert, building expectations but never delivering on them. Thorpe's writing is sharpest and most engaging for Michael, juicily delving into infrequently explored psychological areas that prove surprisingly theatrical. But the other characters are too emotionally peripheral, even for highlighting Michael's self-centeredness, and never contribute to the story or Michael's character in innovative ways. The needy reporter who can't get inside her story, the neglected wife who's never in her husband's picture enough for her tastes, the young man who's showing his elders and betters how it's really done... These types have all been presented more creatively elsewhere, and while the performers do admirable work, none can make much of an impression.
Barnes, however, is terrific as Michael, filling him with enough quiet fire and personal uncertainty to convince you he truly would be more at home on a battlefield than on the couch with his wife. Michael's passion for his work, his desire to avoid becoming a part of the stories he tells, and his conflicted feelings about how he lives his life all make for a fascinating portrait of a complicated man losing touch with his own humanity while revealing it in others.
What surrounds him, though, ensures that that portrait is just in black and white: You get a shadowy sense of the alarming reality of his life, at home and abroad, but too much is missing for you to accept everything simply at face value. Nonetheless, when Michael describes the details of his obsession with his profession - of the possibility that a plane he's on will be shot down, he says, "Whatever happens, as the earth comes up to meet me, I'll be taking pictures. All the way down." - you can't help but believe, and regret, every word he says.