In God of Carnage, the 2006 Yasmina Reza play that premiered in Zurich and went on to become an international hit, two pairs of parents meet in the stylish home of one of them. They’ve gathered to discuss with respect (they hope) the recent park fight between their two young sons. Not too surprisingly, their civilized discourse is short-lived. Before they’ve finished attacking each other verbally and physically and the concluding lights go down, Reza makes the point that civilized behavior is a fragile condition.
Now comes Michael McKeever’s After, at 59E59 Theatres, in which two pairs of parents meet in the stylish home of one of them. They’ve gathered to discuss with respect (they hope) the objectionable text one of their sons, 17-year-old Matthew, received from the other couple’s son, 17-year-old Kyle. Not surprisingly their civilized discourse is short-lived. Before they’ve finished attacking each other verbally and physically and the concluding lights go down, McKeever makes the point that civilized behavior is a fragile condition.
In other words, After can be considered a companion piece to God of Carnage. But be aware it’s not merely a repeat. Yes, the very contemporary topic of schoolyard bullying in the latter play is repeated in the former, but, to McKeever’s credit, he expands broadly on the characters’ psychological underpinnings. When audience members familiar with God of Carnage who may be thinking, “Huh, what, again?” stick with the action, they’re likely to recognize that After is a worthy God of Carnage sequel and may even be a trenchant improvement on the predecessor. Audience members who haven’t seen God of Carnage are in for a fresh and strong ride.
Divided into three parts—”Before,” “During,” “After”—the somber, intermissionless 95-minute work pits Julia Campbell (Mia Matthews) and Tate Campbell (Michael Frederic) against Connie Beckman (Denise Cormier) and Alan Beckman (Bill Phillips)—with Julia’s divorced sister Val Wallace (Julie Curtsinger) brought in against her will to serve as mediator.
The five of them have been less than friends and more than acquaintances for some time, but Kyle’s calling Mitchell a “faggot” in his text and following that with the threatening words “You’re next” is too inflammatory for serenity. Connie—the least of the four prepared to be courteous throughout their exchange—puts her damaged, angry feelings out there almost immediately, and any possibility is gone that they’ll be able to keep calm and carry on.
As a result, “Before” ends in a stalemate. “During“ takes place shortly thereafter with only the three women present. And the highly volatile “After,” which prompts the umbrella title for reasons that come hotly clear, occurs two years later. It follows a shocking development that won’t be described here. Maybe it’s fair to say that McKeever finds a way to have Kyle contact the Beckmans—not his parents—to explain what had precipitated the ugly episode between Matthew and him.
Additionally, it may be fair to say that McKeever serves up a more troubling fade-out than any observer is likely to foresee. He reaches it when he’s examined not only the animus between the Campbells and the Beckmans but has also brought out the cracks (maybe “canyons” is the better words) within the two marriages—and also slips in problems conciliatory Val faces. Among other things, she, too, has a son, Eric, and he has his idiosyncrasies.
So, yes, After looks clear-eyed at the marred institution of marriage and at rampant bullying, but it doesn’t shy away from other current concerns, either. It chases them. When the Beckmans enter the Campbells’ living room (Brian Prather designed it to look as pristine as something Craig’s wife might have established for herself), she mocks the stuffed deer head directly over the fireplace and also has a go at the three rifles displayed in an adjacent niche. That’s to say, today’s gun issue is evoked—and later underlined when another gun enters the disturbing Campbell-Beckman history. It could almost be said, in a week with the college-admissions scandal gorging the headlines, that those revelations may cross patrons’ minds. Val’s Eric is eager to attend Dartmouth, and these monied folks with their concerns for their sons could be the sort to resort to payoffs. Maybe this view is a stretch, but maybe not that long a stretch.
Joe Brancato directs After with the iron hand it requires, which means that the cast is uniformly strong. It’s an impressive ensemble with each of the members having moments when they shine unseen spotlights on themselves while airing their character’s fury. By the way, costumer Gregory Gale dresses the Campbells in shades of beige, tan and brown, as if they shop exclusively in Milan. The others look as if they shop locally and not more than practically. Very clever.
When After begins, Julia is getting ready for company, and, as McKeever writes his disquieting play, it’s Julia who’s seen last. To some extent, then, she’s the focal figure. More than once, the furious Connie accuses Julia of having the “perfect” life, and more than once Julia insists that Connie doesn’t known what she’s talking about. In time, it’s Julia—going into specifics for Connie’s sake—who embodies what’s perhaps McKeever’s focal point: that parenting is an unpredictable undertaking and people may be assuming it at their peril. It’s a blunt observation McKeever makes, and he makes it with notable authority.