Playwright: Gina Gionfriddo
At: Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield
Phone: 773-883-8830; $20-$25
Runs through Nov. 15
Stage Left Theatre's Chicago premiere of After Ashley is truly a case of 'the show must go on.'
The weekend before opening night, a cast member had to drop out due to a medical emergency. The replacement, Mike Rogaslki, had to carry his script around as the ruthless talk-show host David Gavin.
Even with this handicap, Stage Left was still able to unleash all the incisive sarcasm and snarky cynicism in Gina Gionfriddo's award-winning 2005 comedy. Stage Left's production under Greg Werstler's direction isn't perfect, but the hilarious positives more than compensate.
In After Ashley, Gionfriddo ( a writer for NBC's Law and Order ) blasts away at the entertainment industry that turns real people's suffering and loss into exploitable entertainment ( particularly blubbering talk show guests, the hosts who spew metaphorical platitudes and TV audiences who blindly eat it all up ) .
The title character is a 35-year-old mom named Ashley Hammond ( played a tad too enthusiastically by Nika Ericson ) . Ashley smokes pot to relieve her disappointments: an unfulfilling career as an art teacher ( for kids she hates ) and a listless marriage to a self-righteous liberal reporter named Alden Hammond ( played by Ian Maxwell, who is too non-descript and barely able to conceal giggles when others deliver comic zingers ) .
Ashley's one bright spot is her clever 14-year-old son, Justin ( played by Brian Piocharczyk, who steals the show with lovable sarcasm and weighty emotion ) . The opening scene where Ashley shares unconventional advice to Justin like, 'Have sex with lots of people' and 'Don't be a dick' is loads of fun.
The next scene jumps ahead a few years and we get the shocking news that Ashley has been raped and murdered by a homeless worker hired by Alden. Justin has become famous as the '911 kid' thanks to the media overplaying his emergency call, while Alden has become a best-selling author thanks to his book, After Ashley, in which he shares his grief and journey to forgiveness.
Not exactly the stuff of a rip-roaring comedy. But Gionfriddo finds plenty of ghoulish humor from Justin's embittered sarcasm as his father capitalizes on family tragedy to forward his career.
Justin gets help with a goth college student named Julie ( a wonderfully petulant and insightful Kate Black ) . Justin first accuses Julie of being only interested in him for his celebrity, but she turns out to be an effective ally when it comes time to brutally thwart his father's latest misrepresentation and demagoguery of his mother—it involves a sexual voyeur named Rockerick and Cory Krebsbach's smarmy performance of him is great.
Even if the casting isn't perfect, Stage Left's After Ashley is still a must see. Gionfriddo gets you thinking seriously while laughing all the time.