Monday, June 26, 2017

Review: The Thing About Open Relationships, Or a Dissertation on Modern Gays

By Michael Block

Between the Playbill photo and the clothes strewn across the stage, Afterglow has prepared you exactly for what you're in store for. Playing the Loft at The Davenport Theatre, Afterglow is the raunchy and audacious new play by S. Asher Gelman about the ecstasy and dangers of an open relationship in the modern LGBTQ community.
Today’s gay scene is dominated by sex and the allure of intimacy. After meeting a married couple in a happy open relationship, Darius penetrates the relationship of Alex and Josh. One evening of fun opens up a Pandora’s box of new bonds, while testing old ones. At the end of the day, this is a play about intimacy and relationships. And S. Asher Gelman has written and absolutely stunning portrayal of this. It’s a gripping drama despite its predictability. The characters Gelman has devised are fleshed out in a manner that is authentic. For those in the community, you know who these three individuals are. Gelman has done an in-depth psychological breakdown of Alex, Darius, and Josh, pinning them up against their deepest fears, darkest demons, and the simple joys of life. We watch how jealousy can spike when new emotions come in. We see how a night of gazing at the stars can bring two people closer. We observe just how painful heartbreak is. There’s a discussion of how much love you can spread around and there’s such a stigma for polyamory, but Afterglow goes beyond this. Afterglow highlights how a simple visual can alter the storytelling of this necessary narrative.
Gelman’s characters are strong in the sense that they are a blank canvas of possibility. There are very few rules of what this trio should look like. And yet in this casting, Alex, Darius, and Josh are portrayed by three super attractive, very chiseled, finely manicured white men. This works for the gratuitous nature of the piece, but more on that soon. Can Afterglow be told with perhaps gay men of color or an older man or some bears or otters (that’s gay men with body hair of different statures for those unaware)? The answer is yes absolutely. And in that sense, Gelman has written a sensational play. It’s unfortunate that the mission here with this production is focusing on the hotness of the trio. Gelman, who also directs, is depicting reality in an overly hypersexualized manner. Can some of the scenes be told with clothes on to allow the nudity to have a stronger impact? Absolutely. But sex sells. There is a plethora of scenes in Gelman’s script that the characters could easily be conversing fully clothed. Nudity can be a distraction and should be utilized for impact purposes, otherwise it feels diluted. With the amount of intimacy and nudity on stage, you almost have to wonder has Gelman created theatrical porn with artistic integrity.
With intimacy being an integral theme in the show, scenic designer Ann Beyersdorfer played upon the intimacy for the audience. With seating on two sides, Beyersdorfer has forced the audience to watch others watch the play. There is no escape. On stage, however, her set mirrors some of the gaudiest gay bars in New York City. The scenic elements are black and glossy that allow a glimmer when Jamie Roderick’s lights hit it. The star of the show though is the world’s sexiest shower. If only we all had an overhead rain shower like Afterglow’s. The use of the hanging bulbs allowed for Roderick to create some stunning looks throughout the multi-scene show.
With a subject like this, a cohesive ensemble is integral to a successful piece. Thankfully, this trio was not only game, they were authentic. As the new cog to the couple and our eyes and ears into the story, Patrick Reilly played into the gay ingenue archetype in Darius. He went beyond the dumb twink stereotype to make Darius a versatile and fervent young man. Even when heartbreak sets in, Reilly brought out the fight within Darius. Brandon Haagenson highlighted the lackadaisical elements of his character, Josh. Josh is a free-loving, go-with-the-flow guy that serves as great foil for both Darius and Alex. Haagenson has a charm about him that causes any villainess tendencies in Josh to melt away. He gives you a reason to empathize with Josh, despite his actions. There are moments during the show that you wonder why Josh would want to jeopardize everything with Alex. Robbie Simpson’s Alex is one of those men that is too good to be true. He’s easy on the eyes, he’s well put together, and epitomizes the perfect partner. Simpson, effortlessly the strongest of the bunch, gives depth to Alex. Alex’s journey is difficult to watch, but as soon as Alex realizes how things are changing, he flips the narrative and becomes the hero that you want to see happy in the end. Robbie Simpson is a star in the making.
The show is long and could benefit from some trimming to create a 90-minute piece. But the meat of Afterglow is phenomenal. This is a show that will be around and find a place throughout the country. It’s an important narrative that I hope can find a little diversity in future productions and castings.