Now or Later
The behavior of the children of presidents or president-wannabes is the stuff of blogs and 24/7 news outlets. Tagg Romney is the latest victim with his recent comment that he wanted to slug President Obama after the second debate; but the phenomena of making media figures out of political siblings dates back to a century ago when Alice Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of Theodore) became a D.C. pundit, famously saying, "If you haven’t got anything good to say about anybody, come sit next to me."
Since then the exploits of children of political candidates have been the fodder of headlines; but none is more incendiary then one performed by John Jr, the son of a Democratic candidate that comes to the light on Election Night 2008 in Christopher Shinn’s provocative "Now or Later" at the Calderwood Pavilion through Nov. 10.
Days before, John Jr.and his best friend Matt attend a Friday night party at their Ivy League school. Though not a Halloween party, John Jr. dresses as Mohammad and Matt dresses as a popular Christian fundamentalist pastor. Someone snaps a hazy smart-phone photo of them and days later, as the votes come in, the pictures have gone viral. Why John Jr. dresses this way has to do with the issue of free speech issue on campus, but the nuances of his reasoning are lost as riots break out in Pakistan. Now his father’s campaign must deal with the fall-out - an international crisis just as he’s savoring victory.
And they must deal with John Jr., who is something of a loose cannon to the focus group-driven campaign of John Sr. In this re-imagining of what could have been four years ago, Shinn makes John Sr. a Southern Democrat who (apparently) defeated Barack Obama in the primaries. ("Now or Later" premiered four years ago in London; this is its first U.S. production and the script pretty much remained intact.)
Hope and change wasn’t John Sr.’s mantra; he seems more like Clinton 2.0, or even Romney 8.0: a consensus candidate that doesn’t see change as happening now, but later. Politically John Jr. is at odds with his father on key issues, such as gay marriage and Israeli policy; but what divides father and son is a dynamic as old as there’s been ambitious dads that put their careers ahead of their families. The distance between them is enormous, exacerbated by John Jr.’s having come out and, more tellingly, by his suicide attempt a few years before, which was covered up by appearing to be an automobile accident. Since then John Jr. has been insulated from the limelight - no US magazine profiles, no MTV interviews. John Sr. may be on his way to be President, but John Jr. is no Tagg Romney.
When this crisis hits, though, the campaign goes into damage control. The incident is made worse when a video emerges that has John Jr. performing a sexual act on a dildo in his Mohammad get-up. Needless to say, this doesn’t play well in Islamabad.
Throughout Shinn’s 70-minute drama, a parade of the presidential candidate’s aides and surrogates come to his son’s hotel room to plead with him to issue an apology. John Jr., though, is adamant in his refusal, citing his right to free speech and the need for him to be distant from his father’s political career; which leads to a fiery confrontation between father and son.
With this intriguing setup, why does Shinn’s play feel more a polemic than a dynamic play of ideas? Some of the problem has to do with the believability of the premise. It is doubtful that any child of a presidential candidate would receive the pass from the media that John Jr. has received; or that he would be so naïve as not to know dressing as Mohammad in public might lead to some trouble down the line. That he remains so steadfast, not fully comprehending the fallout from his actions, dilutes the viability of his arguments. Yes, he has a right to free speech; but really, is he so clueless to the symbolism of his act?
This makes for a drama that’s an exercise in rhetoric, with the larger, more interesting psychological subtexts not fully brought to the surface. Was John Jr. being passive-aggressive by doing something this provocative? Was this a way of getting back at his father? Too much of the time any darker motives are beneath the surface; instead the play is an object lesson in playing politics, both on the national scene and within the family dynamic.
It just isn’t convincing. When the confrontation comes to a head, why does the play dissolve into an argument about John Sr.’s stand on Israel? We get it - they don’t agree on much; John Jr. wants change now; John Sr. is willing to wait until later. Maybe four years ago this argument may have felt pertinent, but as we face the upcoming election, this feels, well, old. Even the recent fracas over the YouTube video that sparked violence throughout the world only makes John Jr.’s lack of insight all the more unbelievable. Given the tone of the play, John Jr. is meant to be sympathetic; yet he comes across as an aloof elitist, so insulated in his Ivy League ivory tower and caught up in his personal demons as to not fully understand the implications of his actions.
Michael Wilson’s production is both grave and urgent - the action unfolds slowly, deliberately as John Jr. is persuaded by a political operative, his mother (who may be sleeping with the operative), his father’s campaign manager and his college buddy, who participated in the now infamous incident. He remains unconvinced, which brings the final confrontation between father and son, ending the play on a pragmatic note.
The performances are mostly on-target: Grant MacDermott conveys John Jr.’s wounded spirit convincingly. It is a difficult role since the character must learn of the grave implications of his behavior and how it can affect others - in this case, his father’s political career. His early naivete was a bit difficult to swallow; but perhaps the gulf between his self-perception and his public persona is something that he doesn’t fully fathom. I’m not sure; but it was difficult to believe this character at face value. Tom Nells is every inch a political candidate - pragmatic and oddly sympathetic given the parameters of the situation. (When he sits across the table from MacDermott, they look remarkably like father and son.) Alexandra Neil brings warmth to Jessica, torn between the needs of her husband and son; Ryan King plays a political operative as a slick caricature; Michael Goldsmith brings a stoner’s sensibility to the proceedings as someone that comes the closest to the voice of reason; and Adriane Lenox does a funny walk-on in a character that seems more patterned after Wanda Sykes than Donna Brazile.
"Now or Later" ends with a potent image (no spoiler here) that suggests more drama, even tragedy, to come. That could be, though, my melodramatic mind at work. It’s a bit of a cliff-hanger. If only what comes before was a more compelling examination of that place where the personal and the political meet; the powerful meaning of images in our media-driven culture; and the nature of progress. The play asks, is change negotiable? But isn’t that what politics is all about?
"Now or Later" continues through Nov. 10, 2012 at the Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston, MA. For more information, visit the Huntington Theatre website.