Gina Gionfriddo is a playwright with a lot to say. Her play After Ashley expounds wittily on some of the most appalling aspects of our modern culture. Yet the Philadelphia Theatre Company's new production, attractive and entertaining as it is in many ways, cannot disguise the fact that this is social commentary masquerading as a play.
After Ashley begins promisingly. Teenager Justin is home sick from school, and the TV show he's watching - a Dr. Phil-soundalike called Dr. Bob - is making him even sicker. Justin has contempt for Dr. Bob, the advice he gives, and the guests who humiliate themselves on his show. Justin's mother Ashley sympathizes and tries to give her son frank advice on drugs and sex - but Ashley's hippie past makes Justin dubious ("You really think you should do the drug talk?").
Just when After Ashley seems like it's going to be a dysfunctional family comedy, it takes a sharp left turn: Ashley is raped and murdered by a homeless man, and Justin becomes a celebrity when his frantic emergency call is broadcast ("People Magazine called you 'the 911 kid,'" another character tells him). Justin's aloof father Alden writes "After Ashley," a bestseller about his ordeal that turns Ashley into a saint she never was in real life. Soon father and son find themselves guests on the kind of exploitative talk show that Justin has always hated, and Alden becomes host of his own show that takes that exploitation to a new level ("You're going to reenact sex crimes?" "Tastefully.").
There's a lot of sharp satire in After Ashley, especially when Gionfriddo goes after the Jerry Springer/Oprah Winfrey segment of culture that is "packaging sickness as entertainment." Justin spends much of the play sneeringly dismissing everything he sees around him, from those reenactments (which he calls "death porn") to the misogynistic lyrics of Eminem; he even takes a swipe at author Lisa Beemer for profiting from the grief over the September 11 attacks.
It's easy to sympathize with Justin's opinions, but it's not so easy to sympathize with Justin himself. Gionfriddo has made Justin the smartest character in the show, which isn't hard since some of the other characters barely appear to be thinking at all. Justin is funny and endearing at times, but mostly he's a judgmental jerk who spends so much time browbeating his friends and family with his opinions that they can barely get a word in edgewise. And his solution for our ills - that people with problems should stay off TV ("People on TV are eating bugs, trying to marry millionaires. Shame is an idea whose time has come") - gets a laugh, but takes him nowhere. The play's sudden shifts in tone don't help its message much; the tone turns farcical for a time in act two, then suddenly turns sordid as a cringe-inducing character arrives to help Justin achieve a strange (and cheap) kind of justice for Ashley.
Director Pam MacKinnon can't keep the tone consistent, but she does manage to get strong work from an excellent cast. The standout is Peter Stadlen as Justin, who manages to be appealing and repellent at the same time. He captures all of Justin's conflicting emotions perfectly; it's easy to understand why people are drawn to him, because it's hard to keep your eyes off Stadlen as you wonder what he'll do next. Tony Braithwaite is hilarious as a self-important talk show host, and there are good performances from Russ Anderson as the spineless father and Tracee Chimo as a self-loathing goth girl who has an odd romance with Justin.
After Ashley is a provocative play with a lot of wonderful, memorable lines, and Gina Gionfriddo has a lot of insight about America's obsession with victimization, psychobabble and self-exploitation. She has a lot to say, but After Ashley suffers because she can't settle on a way to say it.
After Ashley runs through Sunday, March 5 at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $31 to $49, with discounts available for students, seniors and groups, and are available by calling the PTC Box Office at 215-985-0420, online at www.phillytheatreco.com/, or by visiting the box office.