Gina Gionfriddo’s After Ashley is a father-son play with a difference, the new twist being that son’s anger with dad is not over mom’s absence—though he blames dad for that too—but over the media exploitation of mom’s absence. I’m purposely being vague here so as not to give Gionfriddo’s inventive plot away. Her play’s best suit is its strong satirical streak, and she has an ear for contemporary cliché that’s heartbreakingly accurate. The inevitable defect of that virtue is her big shortcoming: a tendency to make characters who are all cliché and no humanity. This would be fine as a shorthand way of bringing minor characters to life, but the main repository of predigested phrases in Gionfriddo’s script is the father, and it’s hard to make a boxing match exciting when one of the opponents is only a punching bag.
Still, Gionfriddo’s intelligence, her sharp ear, and her compassion—the last of which makes a strangely compatible bedfellow for her cynicism—give the play a dignity of purpose that lifts it above its facile lapses. Maybe ambition should be made of sterner stuff, but ambition in young writers is a welcome thing even so. Gionfriddo’s struggle to make her story mean something, both as a personal account of her characters’ lives and as a wider social statement, is often visible. You feel sad when she grasps at an easy choice or misses an obvious point, because the play is always on the verge of claiming some fairly powerful germ of truth about the way we live now and too often lets it slip away in favor of the facile joke and the glib melodramatics.
In a way, this isn’t Gionfriddo’s fault. We’ve built for ourselves a fake world in which media and packaging replace actuality; more and more American children think milk comes from a supermarket, not a cow. Technology has made lives infinitely easier and more bearable; it’s also become an overpoweringly intrusive pest. Gionfriddo is on the side of quietude and introspection. Her hero, a not very princely Prince Hamlet surrounded by cable-visioned courtiers, has a double motive and cue for passion, his grief over his mother’s absence and his resentment of the false myth the media—and his father—are trying to project of her. What Gionfriddo can’t do yet, which the author of that earlier Prince Hamlet play was aces at, is texture the falsity so that we recognize it as the stuff we have to fight past every day in order to be living our lives for real. The big events of her play are all too painfully believable; the little moment-to-moment details are what tend to fall flat.
This is even true in the most developed relationship, that between the hero and the comparatively rational Ophelia he bonds with by way of an almost casual pickup. Many of the steps they take together seem like just the sort of actions that would give intelligent and sensitive youngsters like these pause. This Hamlet never seems to catch the irony, which Shakespeare’s prince certainly would have noticed, that his rebellious gestures are helping to fuel the media mill he despises so deeply. Hamlet makes mistakes too, but his play is a tragedy; the mistakes lead inexorably to his death, while those Gionfriddo’s Justin makes seem to lead only to more mistakes, which doesn’t help us believe in the almost preternatural intelligence and self-awareness the author has granted him.
Terry Kinney’s production catches the feeling Gionfriddo evokes, but doesn’t do much to deepen or enhance it. Tim Hopper as the hero’s father and Grant Shaud as his media boss give strong, lucid performances that never quite become three-dimensional, while Mark Rosenthal, as a sex-club entrepreneur, is so self-consciously creepy he barely makes two dimensions. Dana Eskelsen, as Hopper’s estranged wife, seems to have been directed to be maximally annoying, and succeeds handily at doing so. Anna Paquin, as the hero’s not-girlfriend, is given a slightly better chance by the script, and repays it by creating a touchingly full portrait of her character. Given the best chance of all, Kieran Culkin seizes it handsomely, with a mood-swinging, physically inventive performance that arouses instant empathy, and skillfully sustains it to boot. His one minor flaw is the vocal limitation, common in mic-bred young performers, that makes his climactic emotional rampage seem smaller than it should. But his potential, like Gionfriddo’s, is real, and their desire to do something that shakes them loose from the unending dishonesty of our time is so palpable that it gives even the shoddiest parts of this play a kind of angry beauty.