(l to r) Mia Matthews, Jolie Curtsinger, Bill Phillips, Denise Cormier and Michael Frederic in ‘After.’ (Photo: John Quilty Photography)
By Samuel L. Leiter
For over an hour of its intermissionless 90 minutes, After, Michael McKeever’s new play, holds you in a viselike grip as its characters engage in fraught discussions of sensitive issues. Its first two scenes, “Before” and “During,” offer some of the most gripping dialogue and character interactions on any current Off-Broadway stage. But in “After,” the final scene, contrivances overwhelm much of the good will he’s created.
A similar problem with a melodramatic reveal plagued his well-received Daniel’s Husband, which examined the pros and cons of gay marriage. In After, he touches on a laundry list of topics, child-rearing (including how much parents know about their kids) being at the top. But he also presents bullying, gun ownership, school shootings, suicide, divorce, and homophobia. Mostly, these issues serve as topical background rather than subjects for detailed debate, but they fit well and will trigger emotional responses.
Miami’s Zoetic Stage gave the play its first showing in 2016, but the production at 59E59 Theaters is the one produced last year by the Penguin Rep Theatre of Stony Point, New York. Director Joe Brancato provides a first-class staging with a wonderful ensemble working in Brian Prather’s setting: an upscale home’s pale blue sitting room, equipped with a fireplace, rifle collection, and deer head over the mantlepiece.
This perfectly appointed space — elegantly lit by Martin E. Vreeland — belongs to the perfection-seeking Julia (Mia Matthews) and the self-centered Tate Campbell (Michael Frederic). Their teenage son, Kyle, has sent a seemingly threatening text, “You’re next, faggot,” to Matthew, a classmate at the same private high school. Julia invites Matthew’s parents, the angry Connie (Denise Cormier) and more moderate Alan Beckman (Bill Phillips), over to apologize for Kyle’s action, which has led to his three-day suspension.
Costume designer Gregory Gale clearly differentiates the disparity between the couples, especially in the clothes worn by the fashionable Julia and the ordinary Connie. Julia, always seeking niceness over discord, hopes to mend her now frayed friendship with Connie, even if it means remaining “friendly” instead of friends. The fuming Connie (clearly jealous of Julia) is so distraught by Kyle’s text and its implications (which Julia and Tate dismiss as a teenage “prank”) she demands his expulsion.
What begins by slyly sucking us into what looks at first like a drawing room comedy — with Alan and Connie overwhelmed by the Campbell’s impressive home, especially the trophy on the wall — soon escalates into a heated quarrel. Helping to mediate is Julia’s straight-talking sister, Val (Jolie Curtsinger), a divorced mother of two boys; consistently reasonable, she functions like the raisonneur in a neoclassical French play.
The debates most often concern parenting, especially the view that whatever children turn out to be is directly traceable to how they were raised. Much of what we hear, however, especially from Connie, who considers herself a model mother, sounds close to the kind of overprotective control suggested by last week’s college admissions scandal, a pattern described by the New York Times as “snowplow parents.”
Another significant theme is that of “perception versus reality,” which plays out in various ways. One, for example, is the question of what constitutes a threat, something Alan (in a theatrically striking but not really plausible way) illustrates with a pointed rifle. Others include Alan and Connie’s knee-jerk reaction to Tate’s guns (surely, he’s a Republican and NRA member); Connie’s perception of Julia’s perfect life; the reaction to Dartmouth one of Val’s sons, who wanted nothing more than to be admitted; and another gun-related revelation I’ll not disclose.
McKeever smartly drops comic moments into an otherwise tragic story. But when he needs to wrap things up in the third scene, he can’t avoid introducing exposition improbable both for its content and how it’s obtained. I’ll say only that the final scene takes place two years later, that someone’s gone to prison, that important information not introduced during his trial is only now presented, and that a letter is involved. Adding to the creaking melodramatics are several moralizing speeches McKeever feels compelled to add.
Until these artificial contrivances, After, blessed with consistently engaging and thoughtful dialogue, is pleasant to look at, beautifully acted, and smartly staged. Some moments are chilling, others moving. A more organically convincing ending would make it far more satisfying. Still, warts and all, it’s worth a visit, especially for those who like to talk about what they’ve seen after the curtain calls.
59E59 Theaters/Theater A
59 E. 59th St., NYC
Through April 14
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sam, a Drama Desk voter, has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theatre, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side, Theater Pizzazz, and Theater Life.