S. Asher Gelman’s Afterglow, now playing at The Loft at the Davenport Theatre, is an innovative work that represents a new chapter in the American LGBTQ theatrical tradition. As the marketing material makes abundantly clear, there is a moment (or several) erotically charged moments during the course of the production. What separates Afterglow from its predecessors is that this act occurs at the beginning of the play and not its conclusion.
Why does this matter? Traditionally, the arc of the gay play in the years and decades immediately following Stonewall focused on a protagonist who was struggling with (usually his, sometimes her) identity and the narrative explored how said protagonist learned to embrace the self and accept and offer love in a relationship that was forbidden either legally or culturally. The final erotic act was liberating but also transgressive in a heteronormative context.
By placing the erotic moment at the beginning of the play, Gelman acknowledges the history of his sub-genre and moves beyond. Where does gay theatre go now? (And this answer is obviously complicated by uncertainty created by the Trump Administration). What is so bracing, so refreshing, so compelling about Afterglow is how clearly it demonstrates that a gay couple, free of stigma, suffers the same trials and tribulations of all couples. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male.” Here, the gay couple behaves as a human couple, and some may dismiss it as simply imitative of the heterosexual. But what Gelman dramatizes is clearly human. Ultimately, the play, while having special appeal and resonance to a gay audience, speaks to all.
Afterglow is a character study of three complicated, flawed human beings. We begin in the immediate aftermath of a three-way sexual encounter between married couple Josh (Brandon Haageson) and Alex (Joe Chisholm) along with the younger Darius (Patrick Reilly). Such activities are designed by the couple to spice up their marriage. Extramarital sex is allowed, but extramarital emotional commitment is a no-no. Of course, in tragic inevitability, Josh falls for Darius. Josh tries to maintain his marriage (they will also soon have a child through a surrogate) while keeping Darius a part of his life. The consequences are inevitable and predictable. Which does not mean they are not emotionally searing because, alas, we have all been party to similar events.
Gelman is careful not to put any villains on his stage; he is also careful not to put any heroes there as well. Josh, an extroverted artist, and Alex, an introverted scientist, have very different personalities. Josh needs more attention than Alex can provide. Similarly, he has no plans to fall in love. Darius, for his part, is not looking to break up a home and is quickly overwhelmed by his interactions with both men. Communications break down, misunderstandings mount, and the heart and mind war with one another. And so the play concludes as far from erotic celebration as possible. Afterglow‘s question is one that the theatre has wrestled with for centuries: how, once we fall in love, do we maintain the fire of that love across the years? Josh and Alex, like so many before them, have failed to find an answer. The dark epiphany is the audience’s heartbreak.
All three member of the cast portray their flawed characters simply and honestly. Gelman also serves as director and provides space for his characters and words to breathe. Ann Beyerdorfer, the scenic designer, deserves especial commendation for transforming the tiny Loft space into the lived-in world of Josh, Alex, and Darius.
More information about the play can be found here: http://afterglowtheplay.com