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Jun 17, 2019 2:29 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Director Jack O'Brien Talks About 'Safe Space,' Bay Street Theater's Next Play Which Explores Politcal Correctness On A College Campus

Tthree-time Tony Award winner Jack O'Brien will direct Mercedes Ruehl, Sasha Diamond and Rodney Richardson  in
Jun 17, 2019 3:18 PM

“May you live in interesting times.” So goes what is said to be an old Chinese curse masquerading as a blessing—and by most any measure, these are, indeed, interesting times in this country, and confounding ones as well, particularly on the political front.

Party allegiances, extreme views, questionable belief systems and suspicions of the “other” are par for the course. Also ripe for public discourse are the nuances inherent in extreme political correctness, the subject of Alan Fox’s new play, “Safe Space,” which has its world premiere at Bay Street Theater beginning June 25.

Directed by Broadway veteran Jack O’Brien, this second production of Bay Street’s mainstage season stars Academy Award-winning actress Mercedes Ruehl as the president of an elite university who must intervene when an Asian student (played by Sasha Diamond) accuses the university’s star African-American professor (played by Rodney Richardson) of racism. What ensues is an exploration of ethics and identity as each of the characters closely examine their own core beliefs.

Three-time Tony Award-winner Mr. O’Brien comes to Bay Street Theater straight from his directing duties in the Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” which stars Annette Bening and Tracy Letts and runs through June 30.

When asked in a phone interview last week if it was his intention to direct these two shows simultaneously, Mr. O’Brien admitted that it wasn’t originally part of the plan.

“I’d been working with Alan on the script for a couple of years now,” he said of “Safe Space.” “I had nothing scheduled, until [Bay Street’s artistic director] Scott Schwartz came forward to say he wanted to do this play. Then I got ‘All My Sons’ late on top of it.”

Not only is this a new play but Mr. O’Brien is also new to the Bay Street stage—“Safe Space” marks his directorial debut at the theater. The idea that a veteran director with a current Broadway hit would work alongside a young playwright in a world-premiere production in Sag Harbor may seem somewhat unusual. But, as Mr. O’Brien explained, this is a project that found him long before it found a home at Bay Street.

“Alan and I are both CAA clients. They called and asked if I would do an in-house reading of the play as a courtesy for Alan,” he recalled. “I’ve not done too much shepherding of a script in the past. I’m always interested in new projects and new writings, so I went up to the office, and they started the reading.

“Then I realized I had a different script from everyone else. They were speaking different lines. It was an oversight—and I was furious. But then I thought, the truth is, I don’t want to make this about me, it’s about him,” Mr. O’Brien said. “I put my script down and just listened. I thought, this guy is really interesting. He’s of a generation I rarely see. He’s 27 and so erudite, witty and receptive to what’s going on. We liked each other, met, and spent a considerable amount of time trying to get more character into the situation.

“He was open to my ideas and eager to work on it. We felt this is a great opportunity.”

“Safe Space” also offers Mr. O’Brien the opportunity to explore the uncharted territory of the college campus in an era when racial and ethnic sensitivities are heightened and offense is easily taken. He finds the perspective of the 27-year-old Mr. Fox to be one that raises all sorts of intriguing moral issues as the Jewish university president, the African-American professor and the Asian student navigate a simmering cauldron of identity and a minefield of potential stereotype.

“In terms of the plot, one doesn’t want to give away what happens,” he said. “But what you can say is with the hotbed of confusion and contention in the university system these days, and the inmates running the asylum, how are any of us going to talk to each other anymore?

“This is not a comedy, but nor is it without wit. It’s a new play, so we have no idea where the laughs will be, though I think there will be many,” Mr. O’Brien continued. “People will recognize the satirical, sarcastic aspects and the positions people take that are emblematic of things they face pretty much every day.”

As is often the case with complicated moral conundrums, there are no easy answers provided, and the truth is largely a matter of perspective. Sometimes, people must shift their moral center in order to effect an outcome that allows them to carry on in this world.

When it comes to the three characters in “Safe Space,” does Mr. O’Brien believe that audiences will find themselves siding with one over another at various points in the play?

“I hope they would,” he said. “Some things are irritating, some are hurtful. One of the things the play also touches on is that you can’t negate a feeling, and, conversely, words have power. As I’m fond of saying, though not of this play, when you tell someone, ‘I don’t love you anymore,’ you can’t come back from that. We’re playing on that level.”

The moral and ethical questions raised in “Safe Space” seem somewhat akin to those tackled in another theatrical offering: “Doubt, A Parable,” John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play in which a priest at a Catholic school in the Bronx may or may not have sexually abused a student. When asked for his take, Mr. O’Brien said he does, indeed, see similarities between “Safe Space” and “Doubt,” in that both explore difficult material without providing definitive answers and morally clear solutions.

“I think there are some parallels with ‘Doubt’—they’re cousins, if not bedmates, in terms of aspirations and the process of the examination of words and meanings, and what we accept and what we don’t accept,” he said.

There are also subtleties to be fleshed out, and much of the work involved in preparing “Safe Space” for its Bay Street debut has centered on exploring the material in depth with the three actors.

“We’ve talked a lot about what the play is about,” said Mr. O’Brien. “When they try it on, the actors ask, ‘Can I use this phrase?’ Alan has been creative and positive and an utter gentleman in listening to the nuances and the way in which they might have to express themselves in a colloquial manner. He seems a complete anomaly to me—I don’t know what tree he grew on. Nothing in his background would indicate he is a politically savvy intellectual with a taste for theater, yet here he is.”

When asked what he’s learned from the young playwright, Mr. O’Brien responded, “It’s not so much what he’s taught me but what he’s allowed me. Someone of my generation and age doesn’t often have a creative dialogue with anyone in their 20s. But we adore each other, respect each other, and there’s a lot that I wouldn’t understand if he weren’t sitting here defending these positions.

“Alan is realizing people don’t want to hear about young white men, and he places himself in jeopardy by effrontery for doing that … That’s thrilling. He’s the next generation, and I truly believe in him.

“He’s self-disciplined, patient, and I think we’re all very lucky,” he added. “We get tough with each other. It’s a courageous, exhilarating, challenging script that is highly theatrical, with three great actors. Alan understands that and isn’t pulling his punches.

“It’s one of the reasons I was so attracted to this play—it’s us, and it’s really where we are right now.”

Alan Fox’s “Safe Space,” directed by Jack O’Brien and starring Mercedes Ruehl, Sasha Diamond and Rodney Richardson, begins its world-premiere run on Tuesday, June 25, at 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor and continues through July 21. A “Pay What You Can” performance is planned on June 25; purchase tickets at the box office only beginning at 11 a.m. Other offers include free Sunday matinées for students, “$30 under 30” tickets, and “$20 under 20” tickets. “Talkback Tuesdays” with cast members will be offered on July 2, 9 and 16. Call 631-725-9500 or visit baystreet.org to purchase.

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