Elliot Shoenman’s “AfterMath,” set three years after a dad’s unforeseen end in Manhattan’s Hudson River, plunges us into a cold bath as well. Shoenman takes stock of a suicide’s legacy with unflinching honesty, leavened here and there with bracing humor. A program note acknowledges the same event in the scribe’s own family when he was 18, which accounts for the evening’s piercing truthfulness, though it hasn’t yet come together into a fully realized play.
The touchstone is the curt suicide note obsessing the survivors: “I can’t take it anymore. Take care of the kids and sell the car.” Their inability to parse its clauses parallels their impotence at the deed itself, which has left widow Julie (Annie Potts) destitute, daughter Natalie (Meredith Bishop) depressed and son Eric (Daniel Taylor) mute with rage. Family friend Chuck (Michael Mantell) can handle the legal affairs and fix the shelving, but is helpless to repair the house’s real root-rot.
Potts’ Carmela Soprano accent takes some getting used to after years of “Designing Women” honeysuckle, but she otherwise carries off this possessive, demanding mom without vanity. Emotional pain verging on the arthritic, she maintains a believable defense mechanism of mordant quips. “He wasn’t much of a do-it-yourselfer,” she muses, “until he decided to do himself in. That he did himself.”
The others don’t fare as well with Shoenman’s overexplicitness. Unvarnished expressions of grief are the stuff of group therapy, but theater requires a transformation effort barely embarked upon here. Step one would be to curtail the characters’ constantly, baldly stating their minds.
“It changed everything,” Eric announces in direct address, that laziest of playwrighting devices. But we can note changes without having exposition forced down our throats. “She can’t accept the fact I’m not a little kid anymore,” he confides, as if Potts’ noodging hadn’t already made it crystal clear.
A seminal fatherly anecdote of Natalie’s ends with a thud: “Don’t worry, little girl,” she was told, “it’ll be okay.” Shoenman needs to start experimenting with the eloquence we expect of everyday characters when their situations are heightened into drama.
Even more problematic are the numerous loose ends. The father’s chosen profession of mathematics prof is hinted as significant in the title, but goes unexplored. There’s no sense of why Chuck’s past dealings with the family should cause so much present-day ambivalence, nor does Natalie’s father, Julie’s first husband, rate more than a mention. Eric’s personal life is so sketchy one expects him suddenly to come out, or reveal an arrest record or anything specific to define him as something more than an open wound.
While Shoenman clearly has more story to tell and room to tell it better, helmer Mark L. Taylor makes the most of what he’s given. (He’d do well to steer Potts away from unexpectedly raising volume mid-line for emphasis. Once or twice, okay, but it’s out of control.) Adam Flemming’s rear-wall projections sensitively highlight family photos and Gotham scenes, while keeping the deceased’s fateful 14 words as surely in our eyeline as they are in the characters’ heads.