"The pictures I take burn themselves into people's memories." As bitterly delivered by a photographer famed for his images depicting the anguished misery of the human condition, in both wars abroad and tragedies at home, these words pulse with a regret that suggests this man incapable of adopting the exalted air of someone at the top of his profession. No, he insists, he's not gifted. He's cursed. Is that true? That's open to rigorous debate in Edward Musto's "Shutterbug," the shattering centerpiece of the three-play collection AfterWords.
The photographer (chillingly played as a resigned Everyman by David Lapkin) might take umbrage at how his work scares off countless women, or complain that people perceive him as the chronicler of death he doesn't think is really him. But under each protestation runs an undercurrent of fulfillment: Even when discussing the mundane contrasts between black-and-white and color images ("We dream in black and white," he says, even though we see in color), you so believe this man's blood devotion to photography that you know no matter how much tragedy he witnesses, he'd never have it any other way. The contradictions and uncertainties about this man's perception of himself and others, even those he loves most dearly, course through "Shutterbug" until the final seconds, a fine testament to Musto's perceptive writing and Erin Cronican's evenhanded, expertly paced direction.
The rest of AfterWords, however, wears its pedestrian predictability on its sleeve. The evening's first play, Marcus Davidson's "Cheesequake Revelations," is an adolescent comedy about a young man named Sweetie (Scott Lovelady) lusting after red-haired girls named Mandy (his current squeeze is played by Andi Teran). The last, Dena Douglass's "A Transitory Feast," tells of the meeting between a morose woman (Melinda Wade) and the dead brother (Adam McLaughlin) who returns to visit her on Christmas.
Both Wade and McLaughlin are amiably affecting, and have a strong sibling chemistry. But while Douglass and her director Michael Mastro have crafted a heartfelt relationship between the two, there's nothing fresh enough here to set this story apart from the many similar tales of the dead returning to aid the living. "Cheesequake Revelations," with its broadly dopey performances, teen-sitcom writing, and Gary Shrader's just-there direction offers even less: Set at a New Jersey rest stop, it entertains in a way even junkier than the hamburger that proves so central to its plot.
Sweetie's obsession with redheads seems especially juvenile compared to the multifaceted portrait of the "Shutterbug" photographer, whose own relationship with a redhead ended tragically. But romance isn't the point of Musto's pointedly affecting play: It's a gripping study in why some people can't let go once they start to hold on. It sees love and our reactions to it as difficult considerations never easily explained, or even understood. It's unsurprising, then, that it's the most satisfying part of AfterWords: The other two plays set out to prove the far less interesting opposite.