“The play is more than alive and kicking,” director Jack O’Brien said of “Safe Space,” Alan Fox’s sharp new drama that was met with a thunderous standing ovation following its world premiere performance, and will continue playing at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor through July 21.
Set at an elite university, the action of “Safe Space” ignites when an African-American professor (Rodney Richardson, NBC’s “FBI”) is accused of racism by an Asian-American student (Sasha Diamond, “Blindspot”), prompting the president of the university (Tony and Academy Award-winning local Mercedes Ruehl) to intervene, and sparking a precarious and volatile exploration of political correctness, identity politics, personal ethics, and the triggers on American campuses today.
About a year ago, O’Brien, the three-time Tony winner and Theatre Hall of Fame inductee who served as artistic director of San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre for more than 25 years, received a phone call from his agency requesting his involvement in a bare-bones reading of a new play by a fresh new playwright.
“I went in,” recalled O’Brien, “and here was this 27-year-old playwright with this provocative, political, racially-charged, challenging play.” He found himself immediately fascinated with Fox, and the two went out for a drink to discuss the work. The mutual respect between the artists was immediate.
“He’s smart and bright and funny and a writer of genuine quality,” O’Brien said of Fox. “And he was more than responsive to me, and eager for input and help and the rest of it.”
Fox and O’Brien met regularly over the course of a year to sort through the meat of the play, working to steer the content away from arguments and toward the underlying humanity of the piece. When Bay Street’s artistic director Scott Schwartz expressed interest in producing the play out east, O’Brien was delighted and eager to make his Bay Street directorial debut with such a poignant piece of theatre. Of course, considering the hot-button issues it tackles, O’Brien knew that “Safe Space” ran the risk of ruffling a few feathers.
“I both feared that that might be the case, and hoped that that might be the case,” O’Brien said measuredly. “It’s not a boulevard comedy,” he cautioned. “It’s a play about the climate of the university at this time, and all the warring factions that are fighting for their own rights, their own identity, their own voices.”
As was hoped and expected, audiences have been extremely responsive to the play so far.
“I heard the audience gasping, they laughed occasionally, there were collective intakes of breath — all the things you would hope a provocative play will engender in an intelligent audience. And let’s face it, this is an intelligent audience,” O’Brien said of the Hamptons theatregoers.
“These people have the habit of going to plays out here. That’s the kind of audience that you don’t get very often. I had it at the Old Globe years ago, because even though that was a sunshine center like this one is, still there were people who wanted meat and potatoes for dinner; they wanted to go and have serious confrontations with dramatic beings, not just comedies and musicals. And so, I feel a kinship with this audience out here.”
In fact, the president of a local university was very proud to attend the first preview. “It’s just exactly like this,” he said of the play’s representation of modern college politics.
While “Safe Space” packs a fierce political punch, the intimate three-person cast keeps the conflict personal.
“That was one of the great perks of doing this, because when, ever, do I sit down in a room with three actors?” O’Brien asked rhetorically. “You know, I get the spectacles, I get the epics, but I don’t ever really get a sort of quiet, intellectual interchange, and so I was thrilled to be able to sit with these wonderful actors and turn over the ideas one by one and examine them carefully, and fit them bespoke-style to what they really needed to achieve.”
O’Brien’s career has been both epic and eclectic. From pop musicals, to the grand opera, to the recent Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” (of which he also directed the made-for-TV film in 1987), there’s hardly a genre he hasn’t explored and excelled in. And while his first book, “Jack Be Nimble: The Accidental Education of an Unintentional Director,” is a memoir of his life and work, his upcoming book will focus more on the skill and occasion of directing.
“I don’t think there’s any one way to direct,” O’Brien said, reflecting on his wide range of projects. “I think you’re presented with a challenge and you either surmount it or you don’t, and if you do, they ask you to do another one. But it isn’t because there’s a methodology you’ve mastered in a laboratory or a classroom.”
In fact, O’Brien views theater as an all-around ethereal experience.
“I have inordinate respect and love for the acting,” he said. “I don’t understand it because I’ve never been an actor myself, but I find actors to be rare spiritual figures that hover just over the Earth, and can bring to life something that most human beings can’t even conceive.”
His admiration and passion for that aspect of the art is largely what compels him into project after project, often with little to no lag-time. While he’s working on something new, other productions he’s directed are often carrying on without him.
“I feel like someone who’s just put a toddler on their tiny little feet, and is watching them run toward the playground,” O’Brien said fondly of the still-running works he sculpted, such as “Hairspray,” which will be remounted in London next year, and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” which is still touring the states. He feels no sense of possession over these works; on the contrary, O’Brien expressed feeling like a distant helpmate, providing “celestial CPR” to get the actors to just breathe and entertain.
And that’s precisely what he’s done with “Safe Space,” which is still breathing and expanding daily.