After Ashley

Even if you're one of the few Americans who don't watch, you know that reality TV shows have seized the wasteland's low ground, sucking in the bulk of viewers and the advertising dollars that accompany their fickle attention spans. If living in a nation of couch potatoes that cares more about who is willing to do what for money than why we have been bombing Iraq for 15½ years doesn't drive you into severe depression, you might wonder what it is about all this up close groveling that mindless consumers find so mesmerizing.

If there's anything to be said for a genre that reinforces our worst instincts, it's that fiction could never get away with the unlikely scenarios that real people play out for their 15½ minutes of fame and a few measly dollars.

Photo of Tobias Segal as Justin Hammond and Angela Reed as Ashley Hammond
Tobias Segal as Justin Hammond
and Angela Reed as Ashley Hammond
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Since one of the purposes of theatre, like the rituals from which it arose, is to wrestle with tribal issues, it's not surprising that a number of recent plays have taken on the phenomenon of reality TV in an attempt to explicate this mass exercise in reverse evolution.

Photo of Sam Gregory as Alden Hammond
Sam Gregory
as Alden Hammond
Photo: Terry Shapiro
In After Ashley, currently playing at the Denver Center Theatre Company, it is through the eyes of a precocious teenage boy that playwright Gina Giofriddo comments on the range of depraved behavior that can be precipitated by the promise of money and fame.

Justin Hammond finds himself in the middle of his highly-neurotic divorced parents: his mom, Ashley, who tries to be a pal instead of a mom, offering inappropriate advice on sex and drugs to her son; and his dad, Alden, who is more concerned with his career than being a parent.

Photo of John G. Preston as David Gavin
John G. Preston as David Gavin
Photo: Terry Shapiro
As Justin, Tobias Segal has his work cut out for him. In addition to the normal rebelliousness to be expected in a teenage boy alienated from his parents, Giofriddo has given the character a gift for social criticism and satire not only far beyond his years but beyond the abilities of 99% of his fellow countrymen. Yet the playwright's language remains accessible, and Segal delivers the goods, drawing Justin as a natural, if temperamental, prodigy whose insightfulness grows with his exposure to the hypocrisy of American culture.

Photo of David Ivers as Roderick Lord
David Ivers as Roderick Lord
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Giofriddo clearly understands the illogic of the psychobabble that passes as wisdom these days, and has a field day populating her story with characters that flesh out these cultural clichés: Angela Reed, as Ashley, draws on the compulsive, high-strung nature of the shameless basket-cases that populate contemporary talk shows; in Alden, Sam Gregory explores the contradictions of a once sensitive father and legitimate reporter who is seduced by fame and fortune to cross the line from journalism to commercialism; and John G. Preston, as David Gavin, captures the single-mindedness of a silver-tongued tabloid host whose forced sincerity, hollow platitudes, and lurid lines of questioning illustrate the depth of our cultural sickness.

Photo of Tobias Segal as Justin Hammond and Ruth Eglsaer as Julie Bell
Tobias Segal as Justin Hammond
and Ruth Eglsaer as Julie Bell
Photo: Terry Shapiro
The playwright also delights us with two charmingly quirky characters brought to perfect fruition: Ruth Eglsaer's Julie Bell, a gothic groupie that, when challenged by Justin, shows herself to be his intellectual and spiritual equal; and David Ivers, whose Roderick Lord—half sex therapist, half porn director—goes down as one of the most bizarre, yet inspired performances in memory.

Kudos to Director Anthony Powell for his dead-on casting and for eliciting such stellar work from all his actors.

While Gionfriddo thankfully provides us with a heroic answer to Jason's personal and our collective nightmare, in the end her dark comedy and the bravura performances elicit neither the required measure of laughter or catharsis to send us away healed. Perhaps it is only to be expected that, like some refugee from The Jerry Springer Show, sweet revenge must suffice in a universe filled with such dehumanizing programming. We can only hope that Gionfriddo, too, has had her fill of the poisonous fare of corporate media.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of After Ashley runs through June 3rd. 303-893-4100.

Bob Bows


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