Christopher Shinn’s drama takes place entirely in an ultramodern hotel suite the night of a fictionalized 2008 presidential election. John (J. Tyler Jones), a 20-something college student and son of a presidential candidate, sits atop a hotel bed pretending to focus on a book in hand. Matt (Joshua Jones) pounds the keyboard of a laptop. Neither speaks, but tension is thick. “Did it leak? Will it kill dad’s campaign?”
The “it” in question is a video of John dressed as the prophet Muhammad, and Matt as Pastor Bob, crashing a party to teach a few politically correct students a lesson in freedom of speech and lightening up. It was just a joke. But the campaign doesn’t see it that way.
Shinn’s script, however, is no joke. If something’s controversial, it’s in there: terrorism, religious intolerance, identity politics, marriage equality, and class privilege — all combine to cram John’s exhausting world.
J. Tyler Jones in Now or Later
Hurried dialogue packed with academic vocabulary delivered like sermons is a lot to take in, and even more for the actors to enunciate. Matt’s long-winded lecture about valuing conflicting perspectives reads like a page from a cultural theory textbook.
Sure, they see what they did as a harmless joke, but maybe Muslims who face Islamophobia see otherwise. In these instances, the script feels like a term paper, or a formal debate, and less like organic conversation. Even Joshua Jones’s charming deadpan performance doesn’t save Matt’s tirade from pedantry.
The beauty of Shinn’s script is the exposition of character through environment, and director Matt M. Morrow uses space and props to represent John’s fault lines and catharsis. John’s world, not unlike his state-of-the-art hotel suite (scenic design: Sean Fanning) perched high above the crowd below, is a self-perpetuating “bubble of insanity.” He rails against it but also finds refuge within, literally hiding in the room to avoid the viral video crisis. John doesn’t blink when campaign strategist Tracy (Whitney Brianna Thomas) swigs the same pricey beer he just lectured mom (Lisel Gorrell-Getz) for, thus exposing his moral righteousness.
The dramatic foils expose John’s bitterness toward his mother, but also superficiality in the script. The only two women in the play represent tropes on opposite ends of the spectrum: cold, manipulative, WASPy mom versus no-nonsense caregiver Tracey. Their only purpose: serve John’s impending catharsis.
When he can’t confront his “pathologically cautious” parents, who support their gay son but won’t publicly support marriage equality, he takes aim at debauching college students who have the gall to take offense to a Muhammad joke. Classic game of kick the cat.
His indignation can’t mask his vulnerability, but that’s what makes him – and J. Tyler Jones’s performance — an interesting, albeit flawed character. When the confrontation with his father, newly elected president of the United States, finally comes, tempers flare, but at least there’s hope junior will unleash on his real target. Whether or not his personal journey brings about world peace is another story.
Playing through March 13.