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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 21, 2016

Sawyer Spielberg and Meghan St. Thomas
Photo by Jenny Sharp

Playwright Penny Jackson may be the queen of the cautionary tale, especially when she is writing about disaffected upper class private school students and the trouble they can get into when they are being reared by exceptionally neglectful parents.

In one such work, I Know What Boys Want, first produced in 2013 and remounted Off Broadway last summer, Ms. Jackson warned of the damage that can be wreaked by cyberbullying and public humiliation. Now there's a new production at The Theatre at the 14th Street Y of a slightly earlier play, Safe, which tackles the scary topic of vulnerable girls who become the target of sexual predators.

There is a lot going on in Safe, much of it establishing the circumstances that lead to 16-year-old Nina (Meghan St. Thomas) being singled out for the attentions of a man twice her age who presents himself as a sympathetic and helpful teacher. That would be Phillip (Sawyer Spielberg), who offers his assistance when he spots Nina struggling with her math homework while sitting alone at a Starbucks.

Nina is currently living with Paul, her seldom-home negligent father (Joel Nagle), in his upscale Upper East Side apartment. When we first meet Nina, she's been there on her own for three days before he even shows up, startled by (though surely not ignorant of) her presence. She has moved in with him because her alcoholic mother is currently in residence at a rehabilitation center in Minnesota. Nina considers herself, by necessity, to be a pretty independent sort, though we learn quickly enough that she is an insecure teenage girl, deeply concerned about her weight and appearance, and susceptible to the attention being paid to her by the gentle-seeming Phillip.

In the absence of a nurturing parent (or even a sympathetic housekeeper), Nina has formed only one close friendship with a peer, the more worldly, pot-smoking, tequila-swilling Liz (Jill Shackner), who suffers from an eating disorder and also seems to be the major caregiver to her infant niece (after Liz's sister took off for India to commune with her guru). Liz, played with exuberant elan by Ms. Shackner, is a pip, but as it turns out, she is the only one who has Nina's back as she is lured into Phillip's careful prepared trap.

Penny Jackson is a playwright who is not particularly fussy about original plot ideas or flawless exposition. Clich├ęs and shortcut stereotypes abound, and we can pretty much see what's coming a mile off. But she shows a real strength in the urgency of her writing. This was true of I Know What Boys Want and it is equally true of Safe, whose most compelling character is the pedophile Phillip. He comes off as a friendly, if lonely guy who seems to think he has a gift for helping troubled teenaged girls. When Nina suggests he sees her as some charity project, he responds with just the right words: "I'm not The Salvation Army. I'm a teacher. This is what I do. Guide young people in the right direction." And guide her he does, until, as the weeks go by, she becomes dependent on him for building her confidence and self-esteem. Only then does he pounce.

For Nina, and even for Liz who comes to Nina's rescue, Ms. Jackson tacks on a more positive, hopeful ending than we are led to expect. But it is the character of Phillip that lingers in the mind as he disappears into the night. Nina was not his first target, and she most certainly will not be his last.

Through October 9
Theatre at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street at 14th Street and 1st Avenue
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatre at the 14th Street Y

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