Susan Smith Blackburn Prize winner Gina Gionfriddo’s “After Ashley” arrives in New York with considerable cachet after its lauded premiere at last year’s Humana Festival of New American Plays. While it’s not quite perfectly formed, this smart, satirical drama about the American media’s exploitation of personal suffering more than justifies the anticipation. There’s a certain imbalance created by having one foot in intimate realism and the other in borderline parody, but the play’s razor-sharp observations, biting humor, droll dialogue and erudite pop-culture literacy provide much to appreciate and enjoy.
Gionfriddo zeroes in early on her target of unctuous pop-psych pap being peddled as healing enlightenment with the voice of talkshow guru Dr. Bob, heard even before the lights go up on a suburban D.C. living room where 14-year-old Justin (Kieran Culkin) is home from school with mononucleosis, tended to by his flaky young mother, Ashley (Dana Eskelson).
Their parent-child role reversal is swiftly conveyed as gullible Ashley eagerly drinks up Dr. Bob’s inane couples counseling (“These people have incompatible sex drives and they’re asking for help”) while Justin curtly dismisses both the TV host’s authority and the forum in which he plies his dubious therapeutic trade. “They should stay home,” says Justin. “They should have some dignity.”
The subtraction of dignity that comes through public prostitution of pain and grief — both by its media purveyors and by the damaged or bereaved people who willingly expose their suffering for broad consumption and personal gain — is Gionfriddo’s theme. This is stimulatingly explored through Justin’s troubled response to the media circus that ensues from a family tragedy.
Wishing to be treated more as a friend than a mother, pot-smoking Ashley springboards from Dr. Bob’s discussion to her own sex-and-life talk with Justin, which leads to far greater self-revelation than to any opening up of her son.
Frequently protesting about too much information, Justin learns his mother is lonely, bored, hates her job as a part-time art teacher, is contemplating an affair and feels stuck in a dead marriage to his father, Alden (Tim Hopper), a man she once admired for his impassioned liberal sensitivity but now sees as phony.
The scene’s relationship advice takes its cue from the Joe Jackson song “It’s Different for Girls.” The two characters’ distinct outlooks — and contrasted shadings of literal and emotional interpretation in general — are cleverly assessed in Justin and Ashley’s radically different ideas of what Jackson is saying in the song, which resurfaces amusingly in later scenes.
Scene two opens with a harrowing 911 call from Justin, after Ashley is raped and murdered by a schizophrenic homeless man hired by Alden to do yard work despite his wife’s objections.
Skipping forward from 1999 to 2002 in New York City, Justin and Alden guest on a true-crime talkshow hosted by David Gavin (Grant Shaud), who wears the violent murder of his teen daughter like a qualification badge. A former education reporter, Alden has published a bestselling account of his wife’s killing and its impact titled “After Ashley,” while Justin has bounced through drugs, alcohol, petty crime and therapy but still seems to be running on unaddressed anger.
The name of Justin’s falsely beatified dead mother becomes something of a franchise when David co-opts the title and hires Alden to front a new show on sex crimes, featuring “tasteful” re-enactments. To keep costs down, the show will be produced out of Florida, where a local philanthropist is to open a women’s shelter called Ashley House, complete with screening room, gym and chef. (“Makes me wish I was a battered woman,” Justin quips.)
As part of the terms of the move, Justin negotiates his own apartment. At a bar, he meets cute, flirty English major Julie (Anna Paquin), remaining cautiously intrigued until he becomes aware she has identified him as “the 911 kid” (thus dubbed by People magazine, his emergency call sampled in a hit rap song). In Central Florida, as Justin rightly observes, “What’s a sad little Goth girl to do?” So, despite his hostility, she follows him home.
Not only in the economical transformations of Neil Patel’s simple sets, swathed in wood paneling, and in David Lander’s dappled lighting, but also in the nuances of Gionfriddo’s subtle writing and its emotional content, each of the three scenes in the first act has a distinctly different feel. While the TV show veers toward a more overtly satirical vein — notably in the clipped sentences and studied solemnity of Shaud’s host — the play remains within the boundaries of realism, alertly tapped into the mores of contemporary media culture.
The second act is more uneven, particularly the introduction of Roderick (Mark Rosenthal), a fanciful character from Ashley’s past who comes across like some kind of pompous sexual evangelist; and Justin’s elaborate sabotage of the Ashley House opening by crudely exposing the frailty of a woman falsely inflated into an iconic victim.
The play is at its best in quieter, more intimately revelatory moments as it illustrates the painful process by which Justin comes to terms with his mother’s loss and perhaps opens himself up to future meaningful relationships. This is due not only to Gionfriddo’s sensitive writing and Terry Kinney’s sober direction but to the unforced poignancy of Culkin’s perf. With his whip-smart deadpan, cynical hard edges and tender bruising, Justin in many ways is a less cocky version of Culkin’s character in quirky indie pic “Igby Goes Down,” and the actor makes him breathe in deeply sympathetic ways.
Both Julie and Alden have questionable motives but are treated fairly by the playwright. Alden is a sellout, a bleeding-heart liberal with way too much moral elasticity and a determined blindness to the exploitative nature of what he’s doing. But Hopper traces an odd sincerity in Alden’s self-serving advancement that’s underscored by his release from an unfulfilling marriage to an ill-matched partner.
Paquin has played this kind of smart tart before, but does so here with warmth, vulnerability and a bracing directness, acknowledging Julie’s interest in Justin may have been sparked by maudlin thrill-seeking but willingly going with it when the encounter provides a more complex yield.
As the title character, Eskelson seems at times to be self-consciously channeling Mary-Louise Parker, but her teasing, testing exchanges with Justin in the groundwork-laying first scene send out a gentle bulletin about her personal crisis colored by the diplomacy of maternal concern.