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Theatre in Review: After (Penguin Rep/59E59)

Denise Cormier, Bill Phillips, Michael Frederic. Photo: John Quilty Photography.

After is divided into three scenes, each of which has a distinct tone -- a major reason why Michael McKeever's sometimes penetrating drama never quite coalesces. The first, titled "Before," assembles two married couples -- and a sort-of special-guest arbitrator -- for an amusingly hostile negotiation over an incident, at school, involving their sons. Back when the boys were in chess club together, the Campbells and the Beckmans were fairly friendly, but high school has a way of scrambling social arrangements: The boys have drifted apart and so have their parents. Whatever affection they once shared is long gone: Julia, the hostess, is straining to be pleasant, but the Beckmans look slightly lost in the Campbells' ostentatious living room, smartly designed by Brian Prather -- note the deer head presiding over the action -- and Connie Beckman is not in an amiable mood. Noting the rifles on a rack to the right of the fireplace, she observes, sourly, "Like I display my Grandmother's Lalique, they display guns."

The reason for this tense get-together: Kyle Campbell has sent a threatening text to Matthew Beckman: "You're next, faggot." Not that Matthew made an issue of it: It was discovered because Connie, who has helicopter-mother tendencies, was looking through her son's phone. Furious, she has gotten the principal involved, leading to a three-day suspension for Kyle, who has also been made to offer an apology. The Campbells hope that this is the end of it, but the Beckmans want Kyle expelled. Julia and her husband, Tate, who want the incident written off as misdirected, youthful high spirits, become panicky and defensive, alternating between charm (her) and hostility (him) as they attempt to defuse their guests' anger. But even Val, Julia's sister, who has been brought in as a disinterested third party -- and don't think Connie doesn't have plenty to say about that -- notes that the world has changed: "There are no 'pranks' anymore. There are school shootings and terrorist threats."

The first scene, which is written and played with plenty of vim and vigor, is more than a little derivative of Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage but, for all we know, this is the first ball of nine innings' worth of malicious fun and bad parenting. This seems especially so when Alan Beckman, the most mild-mannered member of the cast of characters, gets his hands on one of Tate Campbell's rifles, if only to make the point that, for those on the receiving end, there is no such thing as a false threat. The characters may be a little crass and self-important but their dialogue crackles with grievance.

The action shifts gears, and not necessarily for the better, in the second scene, titled "During," in which Julia, Connie, and Val get together to try to settle matters once and for all. The suspension has taken place, but the Beckmans aren't satisfied. Julia, for her part, isn't happy that Connie is going around the local stores, trash-talking her maternal skills. The scene has some telling bits, including Julia recalling her futile attempts at communication with Kyle and Connie's description of Matthew, standing in the doorway, paralyzed at the thought of going to school on the day of Kyle's return. But the humor has been leached out of the dialogue, and there are many speeches, mostly about motherhood, that lean toward the sententious. It's around this point that one begins to realize that both Matthew and Kyle, neither of whom we ever see, are little more than props in the story, and yet, because the parents tend to state and restate the same arguments, we don't know all that much about them, either.

You won't be surprised to hear that the third scene is titled "After." It takes place a couple of years later, following an incident that has brought tragedy to both families. The Beckmans return, yet again, this time bearing hard evidence that explains Kyle's hostile text message and all that followed; as it happens, it is a much uglier story than anyone ever imagined. If After were strictly a psychological thriller, this scene wouldn't be a bad ending at all; even if a tad mechanical, McKeever makes the plot pieces fit together with a satisfying click. But the play tries to hop a ride aboard the current events bandwagon, a place it never really earns. We get many speeches about guns and school shootings, none of which have much to do with the specifics of the situation described here. (Seeing After on the same day as the terrorist attacks at the New Zealand mosques only highlighted the play's manipulative, exploitative qualities, leaving a bad taste in one's mouth. I hasten to add that it isn't nearly as bad as Good Friday, the girls-with-guns melodrama at the Flea theatre, but still.) Like Daniel's Husband, McKeever's previous work, which recently closed Off Broadway, After is intelligent but contrived, its characters given to making orations instead of conversing like real people.

This last quality is not alleviated by Joe Brancato's direction, which lets most of the cast members face out front and deliver their lines as if taking part in a panel discussion. The one exception is Mia Matthews as Julia, in part because her character undergoes a devastating transformation. Driven to create the perfect home and family, she is a model diplomat in the first scene, her composure cracking in the second, and, in the third, is harrowed by grief and fury at an unjust, indifferent universe. Michael Frederic also has a powerful bit when Tate, reading a letter filled with unpalatable truths, breaks down in sobs.

In addition to Prather's set, which tells one plenty about the Campbells and their aspirations, Gregory Gale's costumes subtly lay out the different social strata inhabited by the characters. Martin E. Vreeland's lighting and William Neal's original music and sound design are also finely done.

After isn't dull but it never really finds a voice, and the people in it aren't individual enough to capture one's interest. It's a technical exercise, a thesis play that spends its ninety minutes decrying materialism and lax gun laws -- not exactly controversial positions for the subscribers at 59E59. The audience rises to its feet at the end, but one has the nagging feeling that they are applauding for themselves. -- David Barbour


(18 March 2019)

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