If anyone can squeeze humor and subversiveness out of personal grief, it should be playwright Gina Gionfriddo. Her day job is writing and producing for the “Law and Order” television franchise, and her cynical and outspoken new comedy at Stage Left Theatre (directed by Greg Werstler), “After Ashley,” rips its subject matter from the headlines and crackles with the sharp dialogue to prove it.
Stage Left regular Brian Plocharczyk brings anger and vulnerability to the role of Justin, a teenager whose mother was raped and murdered three years earlier. Still unable to move on, and having gained national notoriety from the high-profile nature of the case, Justin must now contend with the fact that his father’s best-selling memoir on the murder of his ex-wife (“After Ashley”), is about to become the basis for one of those sensational true-crime women’s network series replete with “tasteful” reenactments of the crime. Adding insult to injury, the producers of the show seize upon a marketing opportunity and push for Ashley’s name to be slapped on a battered women’s shelter (“Ashley’s House), even though the tribute is misguided and the sentiment goes against everything Ashley stood for when she was alive. (In a movingly written prologue, in which the playwright vividly paints a picture of Ashley’s unconventional mothering skills, Ashley’s opinion on battered women (“Some battered women are pains in the ass…There are women…who I would beat the shit out of if I had to see them every day of my life.”) also sums up the play’s politically incorrect, no-bullshit tone.)
I won’t give away the contrived plot turn that develops, but suffice it to say that it gives Justin the opportunity to end his father’s and everyone else’s false canonization of his mother. But at what cost I wondered. This is a play that takes to heart the idea of calling it like it is. And especially when that truth hurts. It is an assault on everything that continues to skew our moral compass, from the media’s commodification of grief, to our implacable fascination with violent sex crimes. Understood. But when Justin says, “I am ready and willing to lead the return to shame movement. People are on TV eating bugs, trying to marry millionaires. Shame is an idea whose time has come,” are we to believe that he would then so shamelessly and publicly destroy the last shreds of his late mother’s dignity, and with an action that could be interpreted as a metaphorical rape? If Ashley were alive, would she want or condone this? Or are we to believe that Justin’s father, the man who scored a book deal out of his personal tragedy, is speaking for the playwright when he says, “I think I operate under the assumption that Ashley’s feelings died with Ashley.” After re-reading the published version of the play, I’m still not sure what the answer is. Maybe the playwright herself doesn’t know, or can’t know. (Indeed, my companion to the show wondered whether the play itself could not be seen as a writer’s atonement for the sensationalism she helps perpetuate with “Law and Order”). Not that any of this takes away from a truly provocative and funny piece of theater, with writing verve to spare and a production featuring some solid acting turns (as I’ve come to expect from Stage Left). On the contrary, “After Ashley” is one of those plays you recommend to friends who you know will derive intense pleasure contemplating and debating these same issues. (Fabrizio O. Almeida)
At Stage Left Theatre, 3408 North Sheffield, (773)883-8830. Thu – Sat 8pm/Sun 3pm. $20-$25. Through November 15.