Now Or Later
Huntington Theatre Company
Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts,
through November 10
617-266-0800 or huntingtontheatre.org
Current events certainly influenced Christopher Shinn in writing his topical 2007 play Now Or Later. The 37 year old out New York playwright recently told Bay Windows, “I remember watching Obama and Hilary describe their views about gay marriage.” He also gave some credit to the controversy over Prince Harry dressing up in a Nazi costume. “I think that sparked the idea on some level. “ Shinn spoke about personalizing the context and scenario of Now Or Later now that Huntington Theatre Company is presenting the American premiere of the play in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Set in an unspecified Southern state hotel room as returns pour in during a fictional 2008 presidential election, Shinn’s play focuses on a controversy involving the son of the apparent President-elect. A video of closeted gay son John Jr. dressed as Mohamed and his close straight friend Matt dressed as Pastor Bob has gone viral on the internet. The viral video-never seen by the audience- involves a dildo and a simulated sex act that is as abhorrent to Muslims as John Jr. wearing the Mohamed costume. As John Sr. is declared the winner in more and more key states- Colorado and Florida among them, John Jr. is repeatedly pressured to issue a full apology to Muslims so as not to embarrass his father as he assumes office. Eventually John Jr., who has accepted his son’s sexual orientation, and John Jr. have a strong moment of truth over both their relationship and the controversy.
Shinn connected this scenario to his own imagination as a writer. “It (the play)was pretty much from my imagining,” he said. “I really tried to personalize the situation. “ Shinn also spoke of the influence of celebrated 20th century French psychologist Andre Green.”I studied his work for years and years.” He was struck by what Green called ‘the negative in the psyche.’ Shinn looked to Green’s focus on “the anti-erotic forces in our psyches and our civilization.” John Jr., Shinn suggested, is reluctant to apologize to the Muslims in part because he sees Islam opposing the kind of sexual freedom that he espouses.
Freedom-sexual and political- is essential to John Jr. in Now Or Later. The closeted 20 year p;d son of the fictional 2008 apparent President-elect is a kind of gay Hamlet without an Ophelia. John Jr. and his unseen love Robbie have parted because the latter chooses not to be monogamous. The troubled son is known to have attempted suicide in the back story of the play. The Shakespeare context derives from the play’s epigraph-“ be bloody , or be nothing” from a fourth act soliloquy in which the Danish Prince speaks of the need for action. John Jr.’s politician father is no tyrannical Claudius killing his brother-there is no murder and no uncle in Now Or Later. But John Jr.’s 50-something mother Jessica seems mild-mannered a la Queen Gertrude. The son’s straight best friend Matt is also 20 and as steadfast and grounded as Horatio in “Hamlet.”
The clearest connection to Hamlet is John Jr.’s emotional conflict about being neglected by his politics-centered father and the lack of privacy experienced by the child of a political leader. Shinn has gone beyond easy correspondence with a famous character and a famous play for a full-length play-albeit a mere 80 minutes with no intermission-that presents its father –son rift convincingly . Shinn also provides a valuable insight-in the words of Horatio-like Matt- about how inextricably religion and way of life are interwoven in Islam and the Muslim word.
Out director Michael Wilson, who helmed the sharp 2012 revival of the late Gore Vidal’s fictional political convention-set play The Best Man, has sharply paced John Jr.’s evolving emotional struggle. He has done equally well with a first-rate cast. Out actor Grant MacDermott captures the stoic grace as well as the exploding inner rage of Joh n Jr. as he meets with his father. This is a breakthrough performance for MacDermott. Michael Goldsmith is very natural as easy-going but perceptive Matt. Tom Nelis rightly catches John Jr.’s lack of intimacy as a father without turning into a villain. Alexandra Neal finds Jessica’s shakiness as an apparent First Lady – to- be. Ryan King is effectively business-centered as campaign official Marc. Best in the supporting players is Adriane Lenox as a savvy veteran political campaigner much more centered than Polonius in “Hamlet.”
Shinn described the play’s scenario and lead character as “extraordinarily complex.” Now Or Later might be surprisingly short, but its characters and ideas are fairly long on that complexity.