Huntington Theater Company’s production of “Now or Later” by Christopher Shinn, in its American premiere, follows current trends in playwrighting: it has no intermission, one set, a small cast and a short running time (less than eighty minutes). What sets it above the crowd is how much it has to say about several profound issues. Shinn poses a number of provocative questions, and purposely avoids providing pat answers, challenging the theatergoer to find her or his own responses. He also challenges himself as an author in that he creates a complex series of confrontations in real time. It’s refreshing to see an author follow the traditional Aristotelian unities of action, place and time in such an up-to-the-minute and relevant manner.
The surface plot revolves around a thoughtless college prank involving some potentially viral video that threatens to explode with world-wide repercussions. On a presidential election night, the son of the winning candidate is revealed to have been photographed in a costume mimicking Mohammed. (Tellingly, we never see the incident; it’s gradually described for us, as though all politics is filtered through the words of others). One might assume that Shinn wrote this within the last month, influenced by current events, but this isn’t the case, as the play had its debut in London in 2008; its very accidental timeliness lends the work its resonance. The topics of freedom of expression, reactions to Islamic fundamentalism, and the limits of rigid convictions and their consequences, aren’t easy ones, and Shinn holds no punches. In his view, all politics is personal and everything personal is potentially political. Even such a simple gesture as using the hotel minibar becomes a subliminal statement of the choices one makes.
As directed by Michael Wilson (whose most recent work was directing the well-received “The Best Man” on Broadway), the play is quite riveting. The Scenic Design by Jeff Cowie sets a perfect tone with his recreation of a typical luxury hotel suite (curiously designated by Shinn as in a Southern state on election night, though no one in the cast has an accent and one might expect the candidate to have chosen to end the campaign in his home state). The Costume Design by David C. Woolard seems just right for each of the characters (except perhaps for the future First Lady, a Democrat wearing a red dress rather than blue, despite being described as one of those people who “hold focus groups on what color tie to wear”). The Lighting Design by Russell H. Champa and Sound Design by David Remedios provide a believable realistic background for the multiple interactions of the cast.
And what a cast, thanks to the work of Casting Director Alaine Alldaffer; not only do they all absolutely look their parts, but they manage in such a brief time to inhabit them. Grant McDermott as John Jr., son of presidential candidate John Sr. (Tom Nelis) and his wife Jessica (Alexandra Neil), is extremely affecting in his conflicted reactions to the near-hysteria that surrounds him. Neil, as his overprotective mother, and Nelis, as his driven father, couldn’t be better, nor could Adriane Lenox (so very memorable in her Tony-winning role in “Doubt”) as campaign staffer Tracy. Michael Goldsmith as Matt, John Jr.'s best friend, and Ryan King (Marc), another campaign staffer slightly lower on the pecking order, are the other characters, but haven’t been given as much time or depth to develop them.
Toward the end of the play, when John Jr. receives a phone call and it turns out not to be the one he expected, it becomes increasingly evident that Shinn feels that there are no easy answers to some of life’s most complicated problems. No one, especially in the public eye, is completely free in making choices; these are often influenced by forces we can’t anticipate or control, and may well have devastating consequences, either now or later.