Monday, October 22, 2012

It's too late for Now or Later

Grant MacDermott looks for a way out.  Of this script.
Just last month, with David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People, the Huntington showed us how to do a political play. 

And now, with Christopher Shinn's Now or Later, they've shown us how not to do one.

Actually, I suppose Shinn himself did that - or at least he demonstrated how not to write a political play.

Or did he simply confuse "play" with "polemic"?  For Now or Later is a very cleverly devised polemic (and one I often agreed with). It's just never convincing as, you know, human drama, basically because no one but a debate club president (or maybe Andrew Sullivan) would ever behave like Shinn's hero, and no one but his shrink could ever buy his version of his own motives.

And without any believable emotional resonance, Now or Later boils down to a duel between educated narcissists, over equally-justifiable neoliberal stances. All the point-counter-point I admit is mildly diverting at times; and all the "no-that's-not-what-I-really-said" dialogue is sold well by most of the cast (and very well by one actress in particular).  Still, we keep waiting for the real show to start - thus even though it's short, Now or Later is also (like Shakespeare's Pyramus and Thisbe) tediously brief.

Here's the set-up: photos of the president-elect's gay son have surfaced in which, while dressed as the prophet Mohammed no less, he fellated a dildo at a "naked party" on campus (naked parties are, for those out of the loop, a pseudo-transgressive Ivy League tradition - even the "hot" Bush twin was caught at one). Now, believe it or not, Shinn's entire play turns on whether or not "John, Jr." (son of "John, Sr.") should issue a statement of apology for depicting the spiritual leader of a large portion of the planet as a - well, you know - that word they call guys who fellate other guys.  (I'm not interested in a fatwah either, thanks all the same Chris!)

Yes, that's really the play.  I admit the subject is "brave" in a strangely pointless way, in that it constructs elaborate thought experiments around actions no sane person would ever contemplate - which means, I'm afraid, that as a depiction of what counts as "conflict" for a normal human being, it's really just a deep pile of p.c. doo-doo.  And then there's the unfortunate fact that current events have overtaken Shinn's hypothetical script and demonstrated with such violence the folly of his hero's position.  So of course John Jr. will apologize.  Of course he won't instigate assaults on our embassies and possibly the murder of an ambassador (or even a terrorist attack back home), over some dumb ironic gay shock joke at a naked party at Yale.


Yet it seems to take a very long time to get to that "of course" - Shinn milks a whole play out of this slim premise! But there's only one way to make such a ride dramatically interesting: there has to be some sort of buried, intense grievance causing Junior to hold out so long on Senior.  In essence the dramatic (as opposed to political) premise of the play has to be: why does Sonny hate Daddy so much?

But after about eighty minutes of tease, the big father-son show-down fizzles, because Dad doesn't want anything unreasonable; he doesn't want John Jr. to hop into the closet, for instance - he just wants him to honor his campaign, and keep Americans safe.  And it turns out the playwright doesn't have any other back-story tricks up his sleeve; indeed, he coughs up nothing like a wound or trauma sufficient to explain John's Jr.'s disloyalty and delay. Johnny is, apparently, not only relentlessly politically correct, but also really, really sensitive - read: narcissistic.  Just like his father, yes I know, but - big deal.

There would be, I think, one way to make this premise work like a charm - as black comedy; I got the impression the cast at the Huntington could have had a field day with that, but it would have required Shinn to admit he's really writing about privilege rather than politics.  As things stand, given the weakness of the material as earnest drama, it's a wonder that Michael Wilson's production ever holds us at all - which it does, intermittently, and especially when the talented Adriane Lenox is around, as a seen-it-all aide who not only cracks pretty wise but is also pretty wise.  There are other moments here and there, but the basic problem is that local cutie Grant MacDermott, who seems talented, can't quite make us sympathize with John Jr.'s elaborate circumlocutions (but then who could; MacDermott does, at least, get us to follow them, in itself no small feat).  Michael Goldsmith manages a bit better as John, Jr.'s self-effacing best bud - but then he gets punchier lines. I also admit I was impressed to varying degrees by the rest of the cast: Ryan King, Alexandra Neil, and Tom Nelis (a believable ringer for MacDermott as John, Sr.) are all talented actors.  Now let's bring them back in a real play.

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