Public vs. private lives, free speech vs. fundamentalism, principles vs. expediency, personal histories, sexuality and dirty tricks on the eve of a U.S. presidential election. It takes serious nerve to pack all that — and more — into 75 minutes. Intermittently, the strain shows, but in Dominic Cooke’s flawless production, Christopher Shinn’s engrossing new drama premiering at the Royal Court, “Now or Later,” delivers a cumulative emotional punch that ultimately matches its thematic audacity.

Wise to the fact that American drama loves a family, Shinn smartly figures there is no better one to choose than the First. With key states being called on election night, the family of the Democrat president-elect (Matthew Marsh) is holed up on the edge of victory in a Southern state hotel.

Structurally, the play couldn’t be cleaner. Shinn immediately detonates a personal crisis for highly intelligent gay student John (Eddie Redmayne), the candidate’s formerly suicidal son, which threatens to have dire consequences. In one room, across an increasingly tense 1¼ hours of real time, his friends and family seek to manage him. Or is it to manipulate him?

With his father’s victory in sight, blurry photographs have surfaced on the Web of John and his college friend Matt (fretful but nicely calm Domhnall Gleason) at a party. John is dismissive: “We were being jackasses at an off-campus party — it’s not like we revealed anything about my father, or state secrets or something. What’s the story?”

Well, the story is that he was dressed as Muhammad and Matt was dressed as Pastor Bob. At a “naked” party. And their behavior came on the heels of John’s editorial against Muslim students attempting to alter the university’s freedom of speech policy. The candidate’s son is being portrayed as an Islamophobe. When senior campaign figure Marc (Adam James, quietly exuding power) cannot persuade intransigent John to issue an apology, the atmosphere climbs up a gear.

Adding threats of retaliation and possible riots, most writers wouldn’t risk putting humor into the mix. But Shinn breaks and rebuilds tension via comic flourishes.

That lightness of touch is maintained by every member of the cast, not least Nancy Crane’s first lady-in-waiting. She finesses laughs in her attempt to talk her son ’round with a bright-eyed, patronizingly soothing manner as carefully sculpted as her hair.

By the time Shinn lands a wittily timed plot explosion, the stakes are very high.

Fiercely ideological positions now threaten to dwarf everything else. Was John right to point out the intellectual contradictions of knee-jerk, anti-American liberal theorizing? Will his apology compromise free speech? How pure a position can anyone afford to adopt? Exacting though these immensely articulate arguments are, there’s a nagging suspicion this may really be a debate play.

Cooke counterbalances that by keeping the heavily expository dialogue at “West Wing” speed. This covers up the play’s lack of action, maintains pace and, crucially, keeps audiences glued.

Wholly convincing as the president-to-be, Marsh effortlessly suggests the invincible public face while privately being inches from exhaustion. In stark contrast with earlier scenes, the climactic father-son showdown brings to the fore Shinn’s enviable hallmark ability: to dramatize via what is carefully left unsaid.

The playwright defines their emotional terrain but leaves audiences imaginative space. Thus as the father cracks under the weight of love for and fury with his son, we feel the pain the men are too inarticulate to express.

The payoff is a tribute to the emotional undertow superbly maintained throughout by Redmayne. His character’s initial naivete — how can he be so unaware of his position as a candidate’s son? — ought to be a stumbling block, but Redmayne affectingly shows a boy whose intellect is disconnected from both emotional development and a sense of perspective.

It’s the marriage of the script’s urgency and the production’s detail — right down to the perfect, slow click-clunk of Hildegard Bechtler’s heavy hotel door — that gives the play its essential ring of authenticity. Tied to an election though its events are, both play and production have considerably more power than that timeline suggests.

Now or Later

Royal Court Theater, London; 376 seats; £25 $45 top

  • Production: A Royal Court Theater presentation of a play in one act by Christopher Shinn. Directed by Dominic Cooke.
  • Crew: Sets and costumes, Hildegard Bechtler; lighting, Charles Balfour; sound, Ian Dickinson; production stage manager, Richard Llewelyn. Opened, reviewed Sept. 11, 2008. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.
  • Cast: John - Eddie Redmayne John Sr. - Matthew Marsh Marc - Adam James Matt - Domhnall Gleason Jessica - Nancy Crane Tracy - Pamela Nomvete
  • Music By: