The comedy and tragedy masks that have long been a symbol for the theatre could easily serve as the logo for After Ashley, Gina Gionfriddo's fiercely bipolar new play that just opened at the Vineyard Theatre. And indeed, in this examination of living and grieving in the public eye, there's much to laugh about and much to cry about. But there's similarly very little to embrace.
That's at least partially because of the pervading chill that affects nearly every word, every set piece, every line reading in this production, which has been directed with cool efficiency (and efficient coolness) by Terry Kinney. The hot-blooded problems of a youth coping with the exploitation of his dead mother by his father, or that father trying to patch the holes in his own soul by caring for others at the expense of those close to him, never come close to warming up the play containing them.
No, there's too much artifice here for that. There's too much hypocrisy, too much glib satisfaction in most of the characters as drawn and portrayed by a troupe of performers who shouldn't be so willing to revel in one-dimensional excess. Yet they, too, must be partially absolved of blame, because they're only working with what they're given, and there's no doubt that they're attempting to find kernels of honesty beneath the production's layers of high-gloss finish. Almost no one, however, succeeds.
The one exception is Dana Eskelson, who plays the title character, Ashley Hammond, with spirited, humorous panache. She's like an incorrectly matured adolescent, an ill-formed teenager at 35 with a 14-year-old son in Justin (Kieran Culkin) and an incorrigibly liberal husband in Alden (Tim Hopper). Eskelson finds the warmth and pathos in a woman who should be hard to unlock: She attempts to bond with her son by giving him sex and drug advice, and pulls few punches from her interactions with her husband, even when he hires a schizophrenic gardener to do some low-cost landscaping. Eskelson's every moment onstage is a complex, unyielding joy.
Yet that's stripped from us after the first scene, when the gardener kills Ashley and the focus shifts abruptly to her son and husband three years later. Alden's published a successful book called After Ashley about his wife's murder and his own struggles for acceptance, while Justin is recovering from troubles with drug abuse and the law. Though they nearly come to blows during an interview hosted by TV personality David Gavin (Grant Shaud), Alden accepts an opportunity to host a TV show that Justin fears will further capitalize on his mother's death; this drives an even larger wedge between them.
As father-son problem drama, After Ashley is limpid without preaching, though it takes mostly predictable turns in its exploration of how unwanted fame affects the family structure. This is introduced mainly through the character of Julie (nicely played by Anna Paquin), who meets Justin after recognizing him from the media coverage surrounding the tragedy; she may or may not like him for who he really is. And the appearance of the sexually obsessive Roderick (Mark Rosenthal), who has more information about Ashley than Alden would prefer, gives the second half of the second act some bite that is otherwise conspicuously absent.
But mostly the play shifts haphazardly between the serious and comic, never sticking with one long enough to make an impression: Now we're supposed to be outraged at Alden's bleeding-heart tendencies, now we should laugh at Justin's antics, now be appalled at David's callousness, now roll in the aisles because of a sex-film maker's overdone elocution. Kinney keeps the show moving smoothly, using Neil Patel's sleek sets and David Lander's lights to cleanly move between locations, but never attains any real locomotion.
Aside from the charming Eskelson, and Paquin, who makes some thoughtful connections with the introspective Julie, the only other performance of note is Rosenthal's. He imbues Roderick with an affected seriousness that temporarily allows him to shine more brightly than his surroundings, even in a one-joke role. The rest of the cast is, at best, functional.
So, really, is the play as a whole, though functional drama generally seems less so when it's got something serious on its mind. Gionfriddo might well have important messages to impart about moving on after a tragedy, but given the unstable, unsatisfying play she's written, it's hard to know and harder to care. When the whirlwind events of the second act leave Justin even more unsure of his place in the world, it's clear that his mother is still on his mind; as Eskelson is After Ashley's sole anchor of realism and likeability, it's all too easy to relate to his feelings.