“Current Events” is the aptly generic title of the second play from David Marshall Grant, the erstwhile actor who penned last season’s Off Broadway sleeper hit “Snakebit.” Grant’s sophomore outing is both more ambitious and less successful than “Snakebit,” a keenly observed examination of friendly relationships shadowed by AIDS. Here, too, Grant concentrates on simmering emotional dynamics in a domestic setting — in this case a family gathered at a Connecticut home — but he’s turned up the volume considerably, and the sensitivity he revealed in “Snakebit” is distorted and sorely strained by the play’s overabundance of plotlines and generous sprinkling of sitcomy laughs.
Chief among the play’s laundry list of issues is the mild mystery surrounding the paternity of the adolescent Ethan (John Gallagher Jr.). A foundling supposedly found at an Elton John concert in 1985, he was adopted and raised in Manhattan by Diana (Christine Ebersole), now an ex-model.
But it soon becomes apparent that Ethan suspects Diana’s brother, “uncle” Adam (Jon Tenney), is his real father, and Ethan has gone on a nine-day hunger strike that has forced Adam to abandon his nascent political career for a few minutes to hold his nephew’s hand.
In Tenney’s nicely smarmy-but-sensitive performance, Adam is the picture of today’s slick politician, arriving with cell-phone-wielding assistant in tow and spouting fantastically vague rhetoric in sound-bite interviews: “Change is meaningless, Cokie, unless we have a vision. … Tomorrow can be even brighter than today.”
The dramatic climax of “Current Events” will eventually turn on the moral dilemma Adam faces: whether to admit he’s fathered Ethan and risk the political fallout from a tabloid scandal or keep the knowledge a secret and lose the respect of those he loves most.
The playwright doesn’t resolve this question as predictably as one might expect, but the alternative he provides doesn’t ring particularly true, and indeed the whole enchilada rests on a somewhat naive picture of national politics.
Adam is an as-yet-unannounced candidate to become a congressional representative from California — of which, at last count, there are about 50. In the real world, he couldn’t get Cokie on the phone, let alone cause a stir in national media circles by admitting to fathering a child out of wedlock.
As a result, the fuss he kicks up about keeping Ethan and his hunger strike a secret makes the character — or is it the playwright? — seem delusional.
Unfortunately, the other elements of the narrative aren’t much more compelling or convincingly wrought.
Upon arriving back at the homestead, Adam quickly begins sparring with his mother, the proud knee-jerk liberal Eleanor (Barbara Barrie), who castigates him for taking the wrong side of or failing to fight sufficiently for various issues — the lottery, gun control, etc. They square off for a few rounds, conveniently giving a rest to Ethan and Diana, who have their own mother-son issues, though these remain obscure beyond Ethan’s generic disgust for everything his really rather sweet and perky Mom does.
And Ethan has another Big Issue as well, namely a crush on his best friend Danny (Seth Kirschner), that he casually confides to Adam’s assistant Jamie (Jeremy Hollingsworth) during a lull in the second act — just after he catches Jamie and Diana inaugurating Subplot No. 7, a budding romance. (By the way, people are always confiding things to the contrived character of Jamie, perhaps because Hollingsworth’s voice is so audibly earnest and sympathetic.)
Grant’s writing for this coming-out subplot is dangerously reliant on cuteness and worn humor about gay men’s interest in Broadway musicals and hairdressing.
And, indeed, throughout “Current Events” Grant displays a fondness for glib jokes that was laudably absent from “Snakebit.”
The top-flight cast assembled by director David Petrarca can’t be faulted for the play’s failings. They perform with a conviction and authenticity that is largely absent from the writing.
Gallagher gives a nicely understated performance as the issue-laden Ethan, although it would probably be impossible to render this confused character entirely plausible. Barrie is amusingly wry: Asked to explain her scolding nature, Eleanor replies, “The world is so in need of criticism,” one of Grant’s better lines. And Ebersole deserves a gold star for her thankless role as the mom who retains her perky demeanor despite consistently demeaning developments.
But crisp acting and MTC’s stylish production values, notably a perfectly realized set by Derek McLane, are ultimately wasted on “Current Events,” a watery soup of hot-button issues and heated exchanges that entirely fails to work up a head of dramatic steam.