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Theatre in Review: Afterglow/The Crusade of Connor Stephens

Top: Brandon Hagagenson, Robbie Simpson. Photo: Matt Gelman. Bottom: Ben Curtis, Kames Kiberd. Photo: Russ Rowland.

Two sure signs that it is June in New York: Playbill covers have a rainbow header to observe Gay Pride Month, and -- in a not unrelated development -- gaysploitation dramas pop up Off Broadway, hoping to get a leg up with the influx of GLBTQ tourists in town. The two titles listed above are prime examples. The advertising copy for Afterglow, now at the Davenport Loft Theatre, says, "The climax is only the beginning" -- and, for once, they're not exaggerating. The lights come up on three young men in bed, nude, relaxing after what was clearly a strenuous workout. Josh and Alex are married, but they regularly enjoy threesomes; their "guest star" is Darius, a massage therapist. Darius is frankly dazzled by them, their obvious affection for each other coupled with their mutual desire for outside amusements. So apparently open is their relationship that Alex looks on benignly as Josh and Darius make a date for the next day.

The only thing missing from Josh and Alex's Edenic state is a child -- but, never fear, he or she is on the way, via an unseen surrogate. In what is meant to be an adorable quirk, they have named the unborn tot Lemon. Alex explains that the name "changes weekly, based on its size. Right now, it's the size of a lemon; week 13. Next week is Peach. Beginning of second trimester. Then Apple." At which point, I assume, it will be eligible for adoption by Gwyneth Paltrow. "You guys are...something else," Darius says. This, I'm afraid, is about as clever as the dialogue in Afterglow gets.

That it takes two full acts for this ship of fools to go under is hard to credit; all but the most credulous audience members will see that this arrangement is a ticking bomb. The trouble begins when Josh and Darius start spending all of their time together, Josh apparently thinking that he can have marriage and fatherhood with Alex while keeping Darius on tap as Boyfriend Number Two. That this plan satisfies neither Alex, who suddenly becomes consumed with jealousy, nor Darius, who finds himself unhappily cast in the role of backstreet spouse, is not surprising, especially since the playwright, S. Asher Gelman, lets everyone speak his piece, exhaustively, with no cliché left unturned. "Some of the most meaningful relationships in my life have lasted one night," Josh says, a line that I thought went out of circulation with the Carter Administration. "Love is easy. Relationships are work," notes Alex, making like Dr. Phil. There are whole stretches of dialogue that are pure Procter and Gamble. Darius: "This is not the kind of person I want to be. It's not the kind of person you want to be, either." Josh: "I know, but I love you." Darius: "I know, but sometimes love isn't enough." I kept waiting for someone to point out that love means never having to say you're sorry -- but, sadly, it never happened.

If Afterglow had been written with a modicum of wit, it might have made for a passable entertainment, but there isn't a single really amusing line over the course of two hours. Solemnity is the order of the day; the only thing these guys enjoy more than sex is talking about it -- so earnestly as to make you wince. What keeps Afterglow passably watchable is the three talented young actors who -- very occasionally -- manage to endow these paper figures with something that passes for flesh and blood. (Gelman, who also directed, at least knows a thing or two about casting.) Brandon Haagenson's Josh is a boy passing as an adult, possessed of a constant need for affection that becomes increasingly suspect as he spreads unhappiness among his loved ones. (A theatre director, he apparently feels he can move the people in his life around as effectively as he manages the actors in his employ.) Robbie Simpson's Alex is convincingly guarded about matters of the heart, at least until the script forces him into all sorts of over-emoting. Patrick Reilly's Darius has his touching moments, even if at times the character is too credulous for words.

Every corner of this triangle is explored on Ann Beyersdorfer's set, which features a bed that flies up to reveal an underside lined with LED tape, along with several shower effects. (Most of the play's softcore action takes place in the shower.) The surprising thing, given its extremely spare nature -- there is barely a prop in sight -- is how much time is spent on transitions between scenes. (In my favorite bit, Darius takes forever to scan his apartment, looking for a place to put the plant that Josh has brought him -- before depositing it on the only available surface.) Jamie Roderick's lighting creates a number of attractive looks using only a handful of units, many of them occupying low sidelight positions. Alex Dietz-Kest's sound design makes good use of electronic dance music between scenes. Fabian Aguilar's costume budget must have been very limited, if you know what I mean.

As silly as Afterglow is, I preferred it to The Crusade of Connor Stephens, now playing at the Jerry Orbach, a grim exercise in finger-pointing that trades on the audience's awareness of events like the Newtown, Connecticut, shootings. Jim and Kris, a young male couple living in small-town Texas, are preparing for the funeral of their little girl, who was shot down at school by a homophobic fanatic. If this weren't sorrow enough, they have to deal with Big Jim, Jim's father, the strutting, showboating pastor of a megachurch, who preaches that gays and lesbians are hell-bound. Big Jim shows up with his frightened, submissive wife, Marianne, and Vivi'n, his flinty, wheelchair-bound mother. With Kimmy and Bobby, Kris' sympathetic sister and brother-in-law, also on hand, the battle lines are drawn; Dewey Moss, the author and director, keeps arranging and rearranging the characters in a series of artificial-looking stage pictures when not dispatching the minor characters offstage on a series of lame pretexts, so those remaining can take part in yet another turgid confrontation. Near the end of Act I, the author produces a bombshell letter that pins the moral responsibility for the child's death on Jim, Sr., but we have to wait almost an entire act for the facts to be brought to light.

The result is a kind of Southern-fried Ibsen, with everyone hurling accusations at everyone else. (These apparently college-educated characters use such locutions as "I didn't think nothing about it" as if they just got out of Dogpatch.) It's hard to believe that Jim and Kris would let Big Jim and his retinue into their house, let alone tolerate his preaching and posing in front of the reporters camped outside. Big Jim, a hefty, oily, overly tanned bully, is a leftover from the days of Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Falwell; he is also the most transparent villain since Simon Legree last curled his mustache at Little Eva.

The acting is of the clenched-jaw variety, with bursts of rage and floods of tears flowing as needed. Ben Curtis looks effectively pie-eyed as Jim, who hugs the whiskey bottle tightly until the father-son confrontation that constitutes the play's climax. As Kris, Alec Shaw has a fairly convincing panic attack. I also liked Julie Campbell as Kimmy, who, like the good Southern girl she is, constantly tries to put the best face on things. The design -- scenery by James Noone, costumes by Teresa Snider-Stein, lighting by Zach Blane -- gets the job done, but only just; given the talents involved, I'm pretty sure that they were hamstrung by low budgets and a problematic venue. David M. Lawson's sound features a cacophonous series of news broadcasts as well as a set of effects that evoke the presence of a press scrum in Jim and Kris' front yard.

The Crusade of Connor Stephens builds to a roaring climax that doesn't really make sense; the letter that indicts Big Jim refers to a sermon he gave, presumably to an audience of hundreds, so it can hardly qualify as a dark secret. By this point, however, all sorts of dirty family laundry has been aired, all of it designed to let the audience wallow in contempt for Big Jim, who lacks a single humanizing trait. It never seems to occur to Moss that Big Jim would be much more formidable -- and much scarier -- if he actually believed what he preached. As it is, The Crusade of Connor Stephens is a kind of shooting gallery, with every single target a sitting duck. -- David Barbour

(29 June 2017)

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