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A CurtainUp Review
After Ashley

I survived a violent loss and so did you two and that's why we're on TV instead of the ones who fell apart and gave up. We're providing an example here. OK?
--- David, the show host who's trying to keep Justin from messing up an interview to promote his father's book about the tragedy that catapulted them to the tabloid and 10 o'clock TV news headlines.
Kieran Culkin as Justin Hammond and Anna Paquin as Julie Bell
Kieran Culkin as Justin Hammond and Anna Paquin as Julie Bell
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
Gina Gionfriddo's After Ashley was one of the four plays that Charles Whaley ranked as tops in his annual roundup of Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville for CurtainUp. He found her look at how today's media culture turns personal tragedies into public circuses for profit and other gains caustic and surprisingly humorous, and her treatment mesmerizing. The buzz of positive comments similar to our correspondent's has made the play's New York premiere at the Vineyard Theatre one of the most anticipated Off-Broadway events.

The company has given the play every chance to repeat its Humana Festival success -- a well-credentialed director, an expert acting ensemble and a superb design team. But to put the negatives that keep the clever concept and rapid fire dialogue from being an unqualified hit on the table, it's too bad, that no one persuaded Ms. Gionfriddo to edit and trim her script to prevent After Ashley from losing a good deal of its steam in its final scenes. That said the play is an eminently watchable and welcome addition to the Off-Broadway scene.

While there is an Ashley (Dana Eskelson) to provide the title for the play as well as an inspirational book within the play, the central character is Ashley's son Justin, a teenager having to deal with a hellishly induced type of celebrity. Kieran Culkin plays him with enough conviction to overcome the fact that he's twenty-three and a bit too mature looking to pass for fourteen or even seventeen.

As Justin's girlfriend Julie (well, sort of), Anna Paquin adds to her increasingly impressive acting resume. She persuades us to make the leap with her from rather vacuous and ditzy co-ed to a remarkably wise and nurturing young woman.

Eskelson's Ashley basically has one big scene. That first big scene, mostly between her and fourteen-year-old Justin, establishes the family dynamic. It lays the groundwork for Ashley to mishandle her unhappiness badly, for Justin's emergence into a " righteous rebel."

That first scene is pricelessly funny -- and sad, given that Justin obviously has more common sense than his 35-year-old, pot smoking and bored with life mother. He's sick with a fever and thus home with Mom instead of at school. He thinks the television psychologist his mother has tuned in is silly and that the sort of sex problems discussed should be private. Not so, Justin's mom, who, after shutting off "Dr. Bob" embarrasses him with confidences about her relationship with his father which he'd rather not hear. Despite the mother's inappropriate behavior and his being put in the position of the parent giving advice -- he quite sensibly suggests a job, making friends, a hobby-- even getting a divorce if life with Alden is so impossible -- there's little doubt that the two love each other.

Aldein, the father (Tim Hopper), enters this scene just long enough to establish himself as a minor reporter for The Washington Post who seems frustrated at not having a more interesting beat and is also better able to relate to needy strangers than his own family. His latest do-good gesture has been to hire a homeless schizophrenic man to do the family's yard work.

In the interest of giving readers a chance to enjoy the 1999 part of the play without knowing what happens before the 2002 events that take up most of the action, I've put the details leading to Justin's having become an unwilling celebrity on a separate page which you can ignore or click on and read click and read . Suffice it to say that this celebrity has been devastating for the sensitive Justin and that his father's new career as an author and TV reality show host (which entails a move to Central Florida) has not helped.

After Ashley's greatest strength is the well-spiced dialogue and its delivery by characters who are just real and ridiculous enough to be both touching and funny. The revelations during the play's final round entail an overly melodramatic twist. This might have seemed less contrived if the play's sixth and last to arrive character had been kept within the confines of Justin's and Anna's dialogue. Mark Rosenthal is an excellent actor who deserves better than this seedy and somewhat superfluous walk-on part.

Despite my reservations, this is a not to be missed chance to hear a promising new playwright's voice in a well-acted and staged production. It's a safe bet to predict that After Ashley will see life on other stages and that Gina Gionfriddo has plenty of interesting characters and ideas waiting to be given theatrical life.

After Ashley
Written by Gina Gionfriddo
Directed by Terry Kinney
Cast: Kieran Culkin, Dana Eskelson, Tim Hopper, Anna Paquin, Mark Rosenthal and Grant Shaud
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Laura Bauer
Lighting Design: David Lander
Sound Design: Michael Bodeen and Rob Milburn
Running time: 2 1/2 hours, includes one intermission.
Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street, (212) 353-0303,
From 2/09/05 to 4/03/05; opening 2/28/05
Tues to Sat at 8pm; Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm Tickets: $50

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on February 24th press preview
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