Monday, October 22, 2012

Living in the 21st Century: Now or Later and If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet

Tom Nelis and Grant MacDermott in Now or Later, at the Huntington in Boston. (Photo by Paul Marotta)

In Christopher Shinn’s Now or Later, currently on view in Boston in a production by the Huntington Theatre Company, the new president-elect of the United States (Tom Nelis) awaits what seems sure to be a victory in the 2008 presidential election. (He’s a Democrat but he isn’t a black man.) The play doesn’t focus on the presidency, though, but on the repercussions when first photos and then footage of his Ivy League son John (Grant MacDermott) cutting up at an off-campus costume party are leaked on the Internet. In the photos John is dressed as Mohammed and his best friend Matt (Michael Goldsmith) – who is sharing a hotel suite with John outside D.C. as the election results roll in – as a fundamentalist preacher whom John’s father, to John’s irritation, has collaborated with on a media event in the course of his campaign. The Mohammed costume is meant as a comment on the hypocrisy of the Muslim woman throwing the party. In class she accused John of racial intolerance because he didn’t think the students who’d put up cartoons of Mohammed around campus should be charged with hate speech and expelled. Yet in John’s view she’s a hypocrite who sees no contradiction between her unbending stance on how those whose objections to her buttoned-up religion should be handled and her willingness to stage a party where the guests cavort in various states of undress. The footage (which John was too hammered at the party to remember) displays him simulating oral sex on Matt. John is gay, but that’s not the issue for his father and his cohorts – though it is for John, who finds the attitude of all fundamentalist religion toward homosexuality intolerable.

Shinn is an intelligent writer who has the material for an incisive contemporary comedy about the tension between free speech and fundamentalism and the dance that politicians do to keep from alienating their supporters and enflaming their enemies. But Now or Later isn’t a comedy (though it starts off like one), and though its discussion is engaging, I’m afraid it isn’t really a play either. There’s no dramatic action; the characters stand around and present position papers. And though the director is Michael Wilson, who has a strong record of directing actors (his last show was The Best Man on Broadway; clearly he’s in election mode this year), the actors, who also include Ryan King as the campaign manager and Alexandra Neil as John’s mother, give uninteresting performances. MacDermott has a bad habit of reading all his emotional lines with tears in his voice, and Nelis doesn’t convey the power of personality that suggests he could win a presidential election. The only exception is Adriane Lenox as a member of the president-elect’s team. Lenox is the fine actress who won the Tony Award for playing the mother of the possibly abused Catholic schoolboy in Doubt, and she had a sashaying, Alberta Hunter presence in her sexy blues numbers in Encores’ Cotton Club Parade last fall. Here she brings wit and expert timing to her scene – a wry and spirited debate with John, who is very fond of her – that isn’t any more dramatic than anything else in the play but to which she lends dramatic rhythm. She’s the ringer in the cast.

Annie Funke, Jake Gyllenhaal and Brian F. O'Byrne in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet (Photo: Joan Marcus)

In an utterly convincing English accent, Jake Gyllenhaal gives a lovely performance in If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet, a play by the British playwright Nick Payne that’s receiving its American premiere in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s small (just) off-Broadway house, the Laura Pels. After his recent movies – Love and Other Drugs, Source Code and End of Watch – it’s a relief to see Gyllenhaal in a decent role. Payne’s play is a little glum but it’s no disgrace. All four of the characters are fully three-dimensional; they give the actors something to play, and there isn’t a weak performance in the cast. Brian F. O’Byrne is George, who is writing a book about the consequences of climate change and has dedicated himself and his family to changing their lifestyle in order to leave the smallest possible carbon footprint. His wife Fiona (Michelle Gomez) is trying to cooperate, but she finds his fanaticism difficult and him increasingly remote. Their overweight teenage daughter Anna (Annie Funke) is being bullied at school and is battling depression. When George’s kid brother Terry (Gyllenhaal) moves in with them, he forges a relationship with his niece that her parents hope will give her the wherewithal to cope with her circumstances. Terry has his own problems: he has a tendency to anger and he hasn’t reconciled himself to the fact that the woman he’s in love with has moved on to another relationship.

Byrne’s work is the most prodigious, both physically and vocally, among the ensemble. He plays a man who finds it easier to allow his work and his ecopolitical convictions to insulate him yet longs to reach out to the people he loves – the other three characters in the play – and manages it often fitfully. But it’s the interplay between Gyllenhaal and Funke that gives the production its emotional core. Michael Longhurst does a fine job of directing what is almost entirely a series of two-handed scenes, and the stagecraft is nifty. All along the lower edge of the stage is a tank full of water into which the actors toss furniture and props at the conclusion of scenes. The idea is that just as the earth is leaking water while most of the world continues to pretend it’s not there, so this family is neglecting the sorrow that keeps escalating and threatening to drown them. This scenic concept (Beowulf Boritt designed the wonderful set) is a lot less dopey than it sounds: the image of chairs and desks floating downstage of the actors is very compelling, and at the climax, when Annie tries to slash her wrists in the bath and water begins to soak the stage, too, the effect is both quirky and powerful. If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet (a terrible title, I think) isn’t an outstanding dramatic work but it sticks with you.

 Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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