BWW Review: Timely Political Drama NOW OR LATER
Now or Later
Written by Christopher Shinn, Directed by Michael Wilson; Scenic Design, Jeff Cowie; Costume Design, David C. Woolard; Lighting Design, Russell H. Champa; Sound Design, David Remedios; Casting, Alaine Alldaffer; Production Stage Manager, Carola Morrone LaCoste; Stage Manager, Candice D. Mongellow
Caught up as we are in the remaining weeks of this presidential election campaign, battered by the nonstop bombardment of ever nastier partisan messages, our vision is focused on the light at the end of the tunnel which shall offer salvation or damnation, depending on your point of view. In that mind set, it is difficult to shift gears and look back to the 2008 quadrennial event, to try to remember where we were as a nation in cultural terms. Playwright Christopher Shinn rewinds the clock in his timely political drama Now or Later (American premiere by Huntington Theatre Company) to explore the most important American principle – freedom of expression – by testing its boundaries in the face of Islamic protest and international political realities.
The debate that plays out in this polemic is whether or not freedom of expression has boundaries (other than the well-known prohibition against yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater). If it collides with another person's freedom of religion, which is the prevailing "right?" In Shinn's script, the stakes are both personal and political as the setting is a hotel room on election night while the state by state results are announced. The gay son of the soon-to-be president-elect is in the eye of a developing firestorm and struggling to maintain his independence against mounting pressure to do as he's told.
John, Jr.'s (Grant MacDermott) youthful indiscretion, or "Ivy League kerfuffle" as written, involved his attending a party with his friend Matt (Michael Goldsmith) dressed as the prophet Muhammed and a fundamentalist Christian, Pastor Bob, respectively. On this night, photos from the party are posted on the Internet and the campaign fears that they will go viral and trigger an international crisis. Art imitates life here as the situation is reminiscent of embarrassing photos of Britain's Prince Harry popping up online, lending credibility to the premise. A pair of campaign staffers (Ryan King, Adriane Lenox) and John's mother (Alexandra Neil) make forays to his room to try to convince him to apologize, gradually leading him to understand that it is more of a big deal than he has been willing to acknowledge.
The back story involves John, Jr.'s difficult history within the family, stemming from his belief that even his birth was "strategic" in the scheme of his father's political career. As a teen, he had psychological issues, including an implied suicide attempt, and spent a lot of time in therapy to work things through with John, Sr. Although he won some important concessions as a result of their work with Dr. Green, the young man can see the old handwriting on the wall reappearing now that the stakes are at their highest point and he fears being steamrolled for the good of the new administration.
Eventually, John, Sr. (Tom Nelis) makes an appearance in the hotel room to discuss the matter mano-a-mano (the mountain comes to Muhammed?), obviously hoping to manipulate the situation to his advantage. He approaches his son respectfully, but Senior is transparent and you can see him calculating each move. Junior wants to believe that his father is willing to let him be his own person, but he is wary, conditioned by their history and his father's narcissism to know better. After all, if the president-elect cannot control his own son, what does that say about his ability to govern and how will it affect his standing on the world stage?
Director Michael Wilson, a longtime collaborator with Shinn, definitely feels the pulse of the play and paces it with real time precision, including the highs and lows of watching election results, ranging from languid inattention to animated exclamations. Now or Later features an excess of didactic speeches, but Wilson guides the actors to deliver them with conviction and emotional punch. Although the play is long on talk and short on action, the blocking keeps things in motion and the only time it felt a little draggy to me was during a rundown of the candidate's beliefs.
MacDermott has a solid resumé of performing on area stages, but this is the first time I've seen him in a serious leading role and he is impressive. He teeters on the line between rebellious adolescent and burgeoning adult, the internal struggle playing out on his face, especially in the final moment of the play when he seems to see his future life passing before his eyes. He also adjusts John's persona to play against each of the other characters, being the most relaxed with Matt and Tracy, while showing defensiveness with Marc and his parents. The discomfort between MacDermott and Nelis is palpable, and the latter also performs a tightrope walk. We watch with great anticipation to see if he can maintain his cool, calm demeanor, or if his angry volcano will erupt.
Thanks to Jeff Cowie (Scenic Design), David C. Woodard (Costume Design), Russell H. Champa (Lighting Design), and David Remedios (Sound Design), Now or Later is attractively staged. However, it doesn't feel like it has enough content to be a fully realized play. There is conflict galore, but John's sexuality does not seem to be at issue. Therefore, I think the qualifier that he is gay is an unnecessary diversion. The brief journey into the details of his recent break-up doesn't add anything significant to the plot and could be excised, but that would reduce this already brief play (about 80 minutes) to insubstantial length. The issues that Shinn raises in the discourse of his characters are vitally important and woefully ignored in the national arena, at least in terms of any serious or insightful discussion, and the fact that the playwright is willing to ask the tough questions and not provide definitive answers adds to the dramatic effect of the play, in my view. Perhaps Shinn's rendering of the president-elect and his campaign's adherence to decision by polling is accurate, albeit incredibly cynical, but it dehumanizes John, Sr. and portrays him as one-dimensional, ultimately tipping the scales in favor of Junior's position.