Theatre Mirror Reviews - "After Ashley"

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note: entire contents copyleft 2006 by Will Stackman

Minority Report on "After Ashley"
at Plaza Theatre, BCA

Reviewed by Will Stackman

     Directed by Shawn LaCount, Company One's season opener, Gina Gionfriddo's "After Ashley" joins the current crop of character-driven plays playing in Boston reflecting current society and its dysfunctions--at least as seen in popular entertainment.
Theresa Rebeck's "Mauritius", premiering at the Huntington is the most successful, combining two opposed sisters, a shifty young man connected to a dubious older dealer, and a mysterious violent stranger with a melodrama involving postage stamps. Her play also avoids direct connection with social concerns by inventing five very self-absorbed persons, mostly at odds with each other, to race through the action. Brandeis grad Rebeck has been a writer/producer for the "Law & Order" T.V. franchise.
Hollywood veteran David Rambo, currently working for "C.S.I.", is having a "rolling national premiere" as part of the New Play Network over at the New Rep at the Arsenal Center for the Arts in Watertown. "The Ice-Breaker," with a title that turns out to be a pun and an approach that traces back to Ibsen, is a two-person December/May (or perhaps June) romance between an involuntarily retired paleo-geologist living alone in the desert and a brash young graduate student (in her late 20's perhaps) who we first meet in Antartica. His rather pedestrian script uses the melting of icecaps and the implied disaster for us all as a metaphor for their lives and fleeting relationship. The script has the linear quality of a "treatment" which could be done as a film or a made-for-TV movie.

Gionfriddo' s effort is livelier but equally linear. Like Rebeck, she's been on the "Law & Order" team and received kudos from the Humana Festival --- in fact for this script.

"After Ashley" has cinematic elements including shorthand characterization and incidents rather than actions. Another character based effort, the story revolves around Justin Hammond, played by Jonathan Orcin, a Suffolk student. He's first seen at fourteen, at home sick, watching daytime "reality" TV with his mother, Ashley. He's a bright and affectionate kid.
As played by Kelly Lawman, she's a complex woman, a part-time elementary school art teacher in a frustrating marriage who smokes pot regularly. Possibly the show's most interesting character, she's killed off after the first scene. But not before an obligatory spat with Ed Hoopman, who plays her husband Alden, an education reporter for the Washington Post. He gets to repeat his authoritarian behavior; she never even gets a flashback.

The play then jumps three years to find Alden and Justin on a reality TV show hosted by David Gavin, who's played by Naheem Garcia. Alden has written a bestseller about his wife's rape and murder by a schizophrenic homeless man he hired to do yard work. Justin has grown snippier and apparently been through drug rehab for more than just marijuana. His father is eager to continue capitalizing on their family tragedy. Justin, who's become known as "the 911 kid, " just wishes everyone would drop the whole charade.

Incidentally, Gavin (modeled after John Walsh), also touting his own book about searching for justice, offers Alden a job hosting a similar show named after his book, "After Ashley." It will focus on sex crimes and include re-enActments. But they'll have to move to Florida to produce it. Justin grudgingly agrees providing he gets his own place, a car that runs, and a highquality fake ID.

The first act ends with an older college girl, Julie, played by Boson senior Ana Nogueira, picking up Justin in a bar in Florida, and after rather confrontational repartee the pair take off for his place.

Most of the first act is simply behavior and setup. The lack of discernible plot is typical of the nighttime soap genre. The never-seen homeless killer is introduced as a plot device. No one has displayed any real motivation.

The second act which opens the morning-after in Justin's barren apartment --- containing a chair, a rug, a sleeping bag, and two milk crates --- shows a glimmer of a plot buried in more situation. Alden arrives with coffee, but he's merely the messenger for his producer, Gavin, who shows up with a deal. As a major promotion for Alden's new show, he's arranged to have a luxurious new shelter for battered women built by a millionaire and his presumably demanding family, to be named "Ashley House". He wants Justin's approval and participation to insure nothing goes wrong.The kid naturally refuses.

After Gavin and his father storm out after unsuccessful attempts at intimidation, a lot of coincidental plot comes out of nowhere. It seems that immediately after he discovered his mother's death and made his famous 911 call, Justin then went to hide her stash and found her journal at the same time. Its contents have been at least part of his sense of guilt ever since and provide a somewhat bizarre plan for retaliation against his father --- and the world.

This scheme involves "Roderick Lord", played by Lonnie McAdoo (whose opening line "Not what you expected?" is doubly appropriate). A rich computer geek, whom Justin later describes as a "Life Coach", Lord had introduced Ashley to kinky sex practices just before her demise.

But the realization of Justin's revenge at the dedication of Ashley House is rather clumsily written, and hardly salvaged by LaCount's staging. The play ends with Justin and Julie watching the waves down on the beach drinking coffee, suggesting perhaps that she has replaced his mother --- or something like that. Or maybe its time for a commercial.

Perhaps a less sparsely staged production would help bring the incidents of this treatment together, but it still wouldn't be a play. The cast does a good job with their roles, but without real character development has to settle for display. The backdrop videos, including a realtime section when McAdoo begins to tape Justin and Julie making love, are suggestive but aren't used consistently and in the penultimate scene are conspicuously missing. Nathan Leigh's music and sound track unfortunately don't add much either. The show, which had a limited run in New York, really should go back to the word processor for a major overhaul. It purports to expose the exploitative nature of "agony" TV, but "After Ashley" simply converts the subject into soap opera, not social criticism.

"After Ashley" (27 October - 18 November)
The Boston Center for The Arts, 539 Tremont Street, BOSTON MA
1 (617)933-8600

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