Christopher Shinn's new play, which takes place on election night, is so timely that it's hard to imagine staging it later rather than now. The Huntington Theatre Company's production (at the Calderwood Pavilion through November 8) stars Grant MacDermott as the president's son, a closeted gay Ivy League student with a history of depression and suicidal tendencies. He's also got a history of dressing up as Mohammad to make a statement to his peers about free speech. When blurry pictures surface of his son's stunt, the president and his campaign staff go into panic mode and try to convince young John Jr. to apologize to the public. But John the younger dismisses this as his Dad going on a pointless power trip.
Tom Nelis plays the Prez, a blend of Romney's flip-flopping "moderate" and Obama's hope-and-change. But his presidential charisma and well-coiffed head don't appear until the play's climax. First, John Jr.'s mother (Alexandra Neil) and campaign staffers Marc (Ryan King) and Tracy (Adriane Lenox) each try, in turn, to convince John Jr. that he should apologize for his stunt. When nothing works, Dad swoops in for the final debate.
Paired with John Jr. is his best friend Matt (Michael Goldsmith), fellow student and partner-in-crime. Matt dressed up too, as Pastor Bob. One wonders why he didn't dress as Jesus, or why John Jr. didn't dress as Bin Laden, since the pairing of Mohammad and Pastor Bob seems unparallel. The students' free speech stunt was nothing if not poorly planned, but John Jr. is determined not to let his father pull one over on him. Meanwhile, he's able to justify his behavior and argue himself out of political corners with a flurry of talking points. The apple does not fall far from the tree, perhaps, although John Jr. and John Sr. are too angry at their similarities to see them.
Many of these debates will keep your brain cells shifting wildly from left to right, since all of these characters — political staffers as well as college students in the thick of poli-sci textbooks — have the gift of eloquence. As the debates over free speech, personal responsibility, privacy, safety, political extremism, and cultural imperialism grow more frenzied and desperate, the topic at hand gets pushed further and further into the background. By the play's end, the story has been pared down to a chilling simplicity: a father and son, and the deep, lifelong scars their relationship has suffered.
NOW OR LATER:: Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont St, Boston :: Through November 10 :: $15-$80 :: 617.933.8600 or huntingtontheatre.org
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