‘Safe Space’ Explores Political Rules on Campus

Mercedes Ruehl, Sasha Diamond and Rodney Richardson in "Safe Spaces" at Bay Street Theater. Lenny Stucker photo

Are some intellectual exercises simply too outré to be defended in academia? Do students have the right to demand dismissal and disrupt a university when a professor’s essay assignment triggers them? Are people—in this case, students—too quick to shut down disagreeable discourse? What happens to free speech when political correctness rules?

These conundrums are at the heart of Alan Fox’s “Safe Space,” now in a world premiere through July 21 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Set in a college campus, a controversial assignment in history class becomes the fulcrum for this stimulating one-act play.

In the opening scene, a popular, black history professor learns that the essay he assigned the week before has stirred up a campus brouhaha. The offending assignment? Write a defense of slavery as seen through the eyes of the Constitution’s framers, many of whom owned people as commercial property, starting with the big three, Washington, Jefferson and Franklin. Yowzah!

Repugnant as the subject may sound, I can imagine some naïve assistant professor angling for tenure somewhere assigning it, thinking all the while how clever she is, and the students going absolutely nuts and demanding her dismissal.

Let me say right here that I am deeply involved in a polarizing issue myself—whether adopted people have the right to their original birth certificates or natural mothers have an absolute right to privacy. Some years ago a college student wrote to me asking for material to defend keeping adoptees’ birth records sealed, and I responded with no small outrage by sending her a thicket of information arguing the opposite. I wrote her that she might as well be defending slavery.

So. No reviewer comes to any work with words as a blank slate.

That is certainly the case with a play as engrossing as Mr. Fox’s “Safe Space.” Any piece of theater that makes you consider the hot button issues of the day as the cast is taking its bows as this did—should Biden be hammered by decisions made in another political climate, should statues of Confederate soldiers be trashed, should a Harvard law professor be penalized for giving legal advice to Harvey Weinstein—succeeds as spectacularly as a winning goal seconds before the buzzer.

A dynamic Rodney Richardson plays the assistant professor, Marcus. He is the appealing and riveting lecturer angling for tenure, as well as the favorite of the Jewish woman president of the college. Ethnicity matters in Mr. Fox’s drama.

Mercedes Ruehl is that woman, Judith Rose, who has had her own tsuris and more on the way to becoming the first female president of the university, a job she has held for a decade while increasing diversity, funding, matriculation, every measure of success for her job you can list. I want to call her our own Ms. Ruehl because she lives in Springs, but since she has a trunkload of major acting awards that sounds provincial, I’ll go with international icon of stage and screen. Here she gives a subtle, moving performance as the woman caught up in the turmoil of a student revolt that has spun out of control over an alumni weekend. Her job is to bring the episode back to earth and not lose her star minority professor, or a wealthy alum donor, or her job.

The center of the commotion is Jenny, the born-in-Boston student of Japanese descent who raises hell and films her outrage over campus insensitivity to put on social media. Sasha Diamond portrays Jenny with such ferocity and self-righteousness it is impossible for this reviewer to see her as anything other than blindly unthinking—even as she presents real grievances with the university. What “triggers” her “feelings” is the axis on which she spins her divisive and damning rhetoric.

The fact that she is taking pre-med courses to fulfill her parents’ dream of her becoming a doctor—not her choice—does not soften her because in the context of the plot, that is beside the point. You want to smack this Jenny and all she represents on the side of the head with an admonition to grow up, get real, and do the damn assignment.

As a frustrated Marcus exclaims, “You know why I assign essays like the one about the Founding Fathers? Really? Because my black students better be ready to think critically when they leave here. If they want to succeed in this country, they better be twice as smart, and twice as tough, and I’ll be damned if I let you cripple their futures with your self-righteous, infantilization, please-let-me-teach-you-how-to-be-a-victim bulls—! You are not victim, Jenny, you are a f—ing lottery winner!”

The pre-publicity of the play pushed the idea that the drama might leave audiences debating where righteousness stood in this intellectual war of words. But as some of Jenny’s outlandish comments drew deserved laughter on opening night—granted the audience is made up largely of past-college-age white people, not students out to fix the world—that suggestion is put to rest. Whether intended or not, the humor was a nice touch.

The action unfolds over a long weekend. A nimble crew move around David Rockwell’s ingenious set pieces that quickly transform the stage. Bradley King’s inventive lighting enhances the rising tension—the pounding rain is a triumph—as well as the passing of time.

President Rose is the clear voice of reason as she tries to convince Jenny that “progress is a process of compromise.” It’s obvious that Rose learned this in the school of life as she reflects on the game she had to play to get into the president’s chair, as well as her primal response to Nazi symbols as the granddaughter of the Holocaust. Chunks of the plot have been purposefully left out in this review, and you are doubtful Rose succeeds in reaching her pupil. But the surprise ending indicates otherwise. However, coming as it does out of left field, the last scene leaves one puzzled — is that all there is?

Yet the quizzical final scene does not diminish from the overall thought-provoking impact of “Safe Space.” Kudos to the 27-year-old Mr. Fox for writing a provocative work with memorable dialogue, and also to Bay Street for staging it. Under the sharp direction of Broadway veteran and Theater Hall of Fame member Jack O’Brien, the play succeeds on many levels — visceral, intellectual and visual.

“Safe Space” is an engaging piece of work that plunges headlong into the intersection of knee-jerk liberalism and free speech with insight and a sprinkling of humor. Mr. Fox has something interesting to say here.

The world premiere of “Safe Space” runs through July 21 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $40 to $135 at 631-725-9500 or baystreet.org. Special events include Talkback Tuesdays with members of the cast and creative team, Sunday matinees free for students with a valid student ID, $20 under 20 and $30 under 30 tickets as well as senior citizen and veteran discounts.