June is typically the month for many gay-themed plays to open, taking advantage of the influx of tourists for the annual Gay Pride Parade. Such works almost invariably feature gratuitous male nudity and forgettable plots, but S. Asher Gelman has set the bar far higher with his first play, Afterglow.
At intermission, a viewer who recognized the playwright commented, “I don’t think this is going to end happily.” Certainly, if Afterglow has an element of predictability, that’s it, but what can you expect? Gelman’s drama is about a male threesome, and love triangles almost always end badly, from Cyrano de Bergerac to Casablanca. What makes Afterglow fresh and riveting is the hand of the director, Gelman himself, and the performances his actors deliver.
The audience enters to see a curtained, raised platform at center (the staging is in traverse). At the start, a red light emanates from within, accompanied by sounds of vigorous lovemaking. Then the curtain drops, and the characters, all naked, are introduced postcoitally. Alex (Robbie Simpson) is married to Josh (Brandon Haagenson), and they have picked up Darius (Patrick Reilly) for a carnal fling. But a spark has been lit among the three. Alex and Josh’s open relationship allows either to pursue Darius, but it’s Josh who does so doggedly, with certain caveats. “Our only rule is we don’t do sleepovers,” says Josh, who works as an actor and director. It goes without saying that he mustn’t fall in love either.
Afterglow charts the progress of the three men’s connection, from the first heady moments to the last. The stolid Alex, a chemistry grad student, is beset by his studies and yet wary of the time that Josh increasingly spends with Darius. Alex is committed to a future with his husband, but he’s willing to let Darius fill a need. Josh is like a puppy, says Alex: “I come home, and there he is, just waiting for me to play with him, tail wagging and everything. It’s nice to have someone else throw the ball around for a change.”
Josh, played by Haagenson as a life force with few boundaries, eagerly pursues the sexual relationship with Darius, partly because Alex’s stress about his studies has left him less inclined toward having sex, at least as often as Josh wants. The couple are early in the process of having a child by surrogacy, and their commitment to each other and to their long-term future, which actors Simpson and Haagenson convey almost innately, is threatened by Darius.
Gelman has cast well. The players fit the bill physically: his three leads appear to be in a race to stamp out body fat. But it’s just as important that they make the decency and good intentions of their characters apparent. Luckily, they radiate warmth too; at no point does one wonder, “What does he see in him?”
“A little bit of jealousy is a good thing,” Josh tells Darius cavalierly. “[It] shows you still give a fuck about each other.” Replies Darius: “That’s kinda sweet. I never thought of it that way.” But thinking about it doesn’t take feelings into account.
The nudity—and it is extensive—is presented with a charged eroticism rather than gratuitous titillation, and surely owes much to Gelman’s background as a choreographer. It shows in the physical movements, from the set changes to the lovemaking. He is helped by Jamie Roderick’s variegated lighting, which encompasses small bulbs on the sides of the space, bright lights beaming down on the shower scenes, and even a touch of neon, deftly creating moods and underscoring individual moments as well. Equally important in evoking the atmosphere is the mellow sound design of Alex Dietz-Kest, employing music, synthesizer and even maracas.
Gelman is nuanced as both a director and a writer. One sees it when Alex, suffering stoically and silently, recognizes Josh’s increasing commitment to Darius. He heaves his whole chest in a deep sigh that translates volumes. It’s also in Darius’s astonishing self-knowledge. “My having sex with you means I’m working against finding and forming a meaningful relationship,” Reilly’s wiry, wary Darius tells Josh. “My point is that, with all of the options out there, we're kind of paralyzed by the illusion of choice.” Cannily, Gelman has made Darius a masseur, someone who makes pain go away rather than inflicts it.
Gelman makes his points with subtlety. When Josh leaves for a final dress, Alex deliberately says, “Good luck.” When Alex finally issues an ultimatum to his husband, Josh has the wind taken out of him. Alex says “I love you” imploringly, but Josh doesn’t respond. The scene ends with a delicate, agonized whisper from Alex: “Josh.”
There is no long-term afterglow for the characters in Gelman’s play. But for the audience there surely is. It comes from experiencing an impressive calling card from a gifted new playwright and director.
The Midnight Theatricals production of S. Asher Gelman’s Afterglow runs through Sept. 16 at the Davenport Theater (354 W. 45th St., 2nd floor). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturdays. For tickets and information, visit afterglowtheplay.com.