By Jim Gilles
On Thursday evening at the Hudson Theatre in Hollywood, I attended a production of a new play Afterglow by S. Asher Gelman – which deals with the insensitivity and transitory nature of dating in the age of the internet and polyamorous relationships that challenge the boundaries of established married relationships.
In the case of Afterglow, we have a gay married thirty-somethings couple whose open relationship brings a third man into their lives and challenges their core beliefs about their own marital commitment. Most certainly the initially stimulating play Afterglow captures the attention of a most male gay audience with arresting opening scene of three writhing male bodies behind a “curtain,” illuminated by a purplish glow – and once the curtain drops, a trio of naked male bodies intertwined on the bed after sex. The naked trio, who soon leave the bed and resume their sexual romp in the shower.
Josh (Noah Bridgestock), a theatre director, and Alex (James Harden Rodriguez), a graduate student in chemistry, are a married couple in New York in their thirties, in an open relationship. After they hook up with Darius, a massage therapist who’s ten years younger, Alex lets Josh continue seeing Darius alone. How will this affect their relationship? Open relationships aren’t limited to gay couples, but they’re certainly a discussed aspect of 21st-century gay dating. In principle, then, Afterglow has an intriguing, topical premise. The playwright is S. Asher Gelman, who launched Afterglow as an off-Broadway play a few years ago and it has had productions in London, New York, Chicago, and Bueños Aries. From what I understand, the original play ran 2 hours and 10 minutes, and this production in Los Angeles at the Hudson Theatre has been trimmed down to 90 minutes. Gelman gives us a one-dimensional look at the destructiveness of selfishness and jealousy, but he doesn’t tackle the question at hand: Can a gay polyamorous relationship like this actually work? In the end, the play leaves us not so much with an afterglow as an anticlimax.
The stunning and surprisingly versatile set design by Ann Beyersdorfer is modern and sleek with lots of sharp corners and angles and a square shower right in the center of the stage. It’s almost all black and there are mirrors everywhere, including on the floor, which leads to harsh light from all directions and the inability of the characters to avoid facing themselves and their choices. The lighting design by Jamie Roderick and sound design by Alex Mackyol are just as critical to illustrating the emotional turmoil the characters are enduring, creating a stark visual palette and soundscape. The bed easily transforms into a shower with real water from the ceiling, as shower scenes in the buff strategically mark key moments in the play.
Thematically, writer-director S. Asher Gelman’s Afterglow is about polyamory more than it is about queer romance. And in that regard, Josh and Alex are predictably doomed from the start. Another term for polyamory is “ethical non-monogamy,” and the ethics behind successful poly relationships are rooted in communication, clear boundaries, and emotional maturity. Josh, with his puppy-like anxious attachment style, and Alex with his avoidant attachment style, are inherently mismatched. They seem determined to try to fix their relationship not only by opening it up, but by having a child together – two dire relationship mistakes that never solve the underlying problems.
Relationships are complicated. And whether it’s marriage or friendship, they become exponentially more complicated when there are more than two people involved, which is what gay married Josh (Noah Bridgestock) and Alex (James Harden Rodriguez) discover through their open relationship when Josh breaks the basis rule of polyamory: He becomes emotionally attached to one of their friends with benefits. To make things more complicated, they are about to become fathers and their third, Darius (Nathan Mohebbi), is an insecure 25-year-old seeking validation.
Josh and Alex are a gay married couple who share a rather fancy apartment in New York City, Josh makes his living as a theatre director and he is supposedly in rehearsals for a production of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Alex is a graduate student in chemistry and seems preoccupied with the demands of his coursework. Since, in my experience, young theatre directors and university graduate students generally are struggling financially, it is a bit difficult to believe that they have the time, commitment, or financial resources to pay to have a child from a surrogate mother. Josh seems to come from money and he does refer to his supportive mother, who is probably underwriting the cost of having a child with a surrogate mother. Josh and Alex keep saying how much they love each other, but somehow their plan to have and raise a child seems quite a stretch, given their personalities and issues.
Afterglow opens on the stage, with two, then three, silhouettes, seen through a purple drape hovering over a bed, and men are busy having sex. As the drape drops, see – in the buff – Josh and Alex, the married couple, and their newest and best friend Darius. After a few moments of ecstatic moaning the sheet dropped to reveal the naked trio, who soon leave the bed and resume their sexual romp in the shower. Apparently, Josh and Alex are a devoted married couple planning on introducing a newborn to their home in the near future. They are also in an “open marriage,” so that the occasional bit of sex on the side isn’t going to damage their relationship. Darius is a younger, more innocent version of the two – looking for love but finding only sex. A masseuse by trade, he has access to lots of bodies – but he craves an emotional hook-up, which has been elusive. Soon Josh decides to spend a little private time with Darius, and thereby hangs the tale.
Josh and Alex don’t listen to each other’s needs, nor do they respect each other’s boundaries. So, it’s no surprise that lies and resentment start to seep in. Deceit and resentment are poison to any relationship, but they especially erode the foundation of healthy polyamory. Josh begins to spend more time with their new friend while Alex is off at graduate school with his chemistry courses. That development alone is enough to cause friction between the previously blissful couple, but they also have to think about their unborn baby.
The relationships within this play are doomed, but although the script does not make it clear, the fault is decidedly with the characters, not with the fact that those relationships are gay or poly. Lurking at the play’s edges, there’s some potentially interesting stuff about the emotional toll that living in a ruthlessly expensive city like New York takes on relationships. Darius really can’t afford to live in New York City and this becomes a wedge issue in the relationship between Josh and Alex, as Darius is thinking of moving back to Portland.
The age gap between Darius and Alex and Josh, who are having a baby, also looms as a complicating factor. But this flattens out into fairly lifeless dialogue, with a lot of talk about what name the baby will be given. I found it curious that no mention is made of the surrogate mother or the complexities of surrogate parenting for gay couples. There is far too much slogging through clichés and half-baked philosophizing about love to give the characters the depth needed to rise about their self-important earnestness.
The dialogue sometimes falls flat but perhaps is the way some younger gay men actually talk today. Noah Bridgestock manages to balance Josh’s childish neediness with his manipulative urge to control the men in his life. As his partner Alex, James Harden Rodriguez is fairly convincing as the man left out of the new equation. It is Nathan Mohebbi as Darius who is most convincing as a young man who is vulnerable and yet full of hope for a real relationship in his life. A bit like the characters in a Chekhov play, the characters talk about love but the real issue is self-delusion.
Afterglow is definitely an R rated and not for those under 18. Audience Alert: Nudity abounds in this tale of love, sex, and betrayal. Skillfully directed by Gelman, who also functioned as choreographer and producer, the story is inspired by S. Asher Gelman’s own experiences as a gay man living in a committed, married relationship in New York City. In Afterglow, playwright Gelman has tried to dip into profound issues: Are sex and love mutually exclusive, mandatorily joined, or somewhere in between? To what extent does the brain define or limit the body’s passions? The actors do the best with the script, their scenes of required nudity, and the demands placed on the actors of scene changes on stage with Beyersdorfer’s jigsaw puzzle of a set.
S. Asher Gelman previously produced the Off-Broadway musical, We Are the Tigers in 2019. His second play, safeword, played Off-Broadway later in 2019. With his background in dance and choreography, Gelman has recently directed and choreographed two dance films, The Greatest City in the World and in memoriam. While living in Israel, Asher co-founded The Stage, Tel Aviv’s premier English language performing arts organization, where he served as artistic director from 2013 to 2016.
Afterglow opened on May 5 and was originally scheduled to run through Saturday, June 19, at the Hudson Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.
The play has frequently sold out and now has an extended run through July 24. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sundays at 7 pm. Ticket prices are $45.00 for General Admission. For ticket and information, go to: www.afterglowla.com.