nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 27, 2005
After Ashley begins while Ashley is still there. She's a very immature 35-year-old mom, very loving but also very needy, at home on a hot day with her 14-year-old son Justin, who has mono. They're watching TV together, a self-help guru who Justin proclaims, in his self-assured precocious way, a "moron." But Ashley is looking for guidance somewhere, anywhere; she tells Justin far too much about what's troubling her about her marriage (to his dad, a latent hippie, an education reporter for the Washington Post who is apparently more interested in championing liberal causes than giving his wife what she needs), about her sex life, about her loneliness and boredom. It's an inappropriate conversation that we're eavesdropping on, but its sweetness and naturalness help us buy into the situation and begin to care about both mother and son.
Maybe 15 minutes into the play, Justin's father Alden comes in. Though he and Justin seem to have a decent relationship, we can instantly see why Ashley has been so down on him (she has just explained to Justin that they would divorce, except Alden doesn't think he can afford it). Alden and Ashley snipe about anything and everything during the few minutes they're together. The last thing they argue about—and this turns out to be vitally important—is Alden's idea to hire a homeless stranger whom he met in a Starbucks that afternoon to do their yard work. Ashley is skeptical about having a man with bipolar disorder work in their home, but Alden is unyielding on the point.
Here, I think, is where playwright Gina Gionfriddo makes a big mistake in setting up After Ashley. Alden is such a pigheaded ogre in this brief scene where we meet him, that he never stands a chance to win our empathy, to be anything other than the two-dimensional villain of the piece, behaving not like a real person but in whatever arbitrary ways Gionfriddo needs him to. The play, which is ambitious and shows clear signs of talent all over the place, never recovers.
What happens next is that, in the darkness following the end of Scene One, we hear sounds of a frantic phone call to 911. It's Justin; he's fighting back hysteria as he tells a preternaturally insensitive operator that there's a man in the house and that something terrible is happening to his mother in the basement. The operator advises Justin to leave the house if the man's still there, and Justin replies that he can't leave his mother.
Cut to three years later. After Ashley is now ready to get down to business: life for Justin (and Alden) after the death of the 35-year-old mother and wife whom we met and liked at the beginning. She was raped and murdered by the homeless man hired by Alden. Tapes of Justin's call got, apparently, a great deal of airplay—he became known as the "911 Kid," hero to a nation for his bravery in refusing to leave the scene of the brutal crime. He has spent most of the intervening years taking drugs and alcohol, though he seems now to be clean. His father, meanwhile, has written a large best-selling book called "After Ashley" in which he somehow manages to spin himself as a hero, championing the humanity of misunderstood homeless people like his wife's killer, arguing that his decision to bring that man into his home was the correct one, elevating (I guess) Ashley to a kind of martyrdom to the cause.
That doesn't scan particularly well, does it? Again, here is Gionfriddo sacrificing internal logic and consistent characterization for the sake of her larger goals. Much of the rest of After Ashley amounts to an attack on ambulance chasers and institutionalized victimhood: Gionfriddo is angered by the new patterns of public grieving that seem to give license for, well, anything. She has Justin cite, in a pointed monologue in Act Two that summarizes virtually everything she has to say in this play in under five minutes, the case of the 9/11 victim's widow who parlayed her status into lucrative book and TV deals; she wants us to restore proper perspective—and dignity—to survivorhood; she bemoans the communal displays of candles and ribbons that have somehow replaced genuine personal emotion in our culture. I think she's entirely right about this, by the way. But unfortunately the play she's written is at once so far-fetched and so mean that it only undermines her cause. (The glib Hollywood ending doesn't help matters, either.)
These people—Justin, Alden, the 20-year-old groupie named Julie who latches onto Justin and becomes his girlfriend—aren't nice; they don't behave as though they care one whit about anyone other than themselves. Indeed the only character in the play who actually seems to have human feelings is the high-powered TV talk show host, David Gavin, who, in Grant Shaud's expert performance, seems to have a real existence beyond the narrow parameters sketched by the playwright. (Another character, the sexual mystic Roderick, appears at the end and seems to function as a combination deus-ex-machina/comic relief; Mark Rosenthal plays him for laughs, and who can blame him?)
Kieran Culkin is quite good as the sulky young hero of the play; if he seems older than the 17 years that Justin supposedly is, well, that's how the character is written—one of the key implausibilities of Gionfriddo's script is how wise-beyond-his-years this young man is: the playwright confuses intelligence for sophistication and worldliness. Anna Paquin does her best in the thankless role of Julie. Tim Hopper, on the other hand, seems at a loss as to how make the selfish, self-serving Alden into anything other than a monster.
Dana Eskelson is enormously interesting and likable as Ashley, and we miss her when she's gone. In fact, the main trouble with After Ashley is that the one genuinely human thing in it is sacrificed by its author all too soon in the name of some Big Ideas that are only clumsily articulated. Gionfriddo might do better exploring the intimate reality of human interactions instead.