You can hear a pin drop during Michael McKeever’s After, an exciting, riveting play about the aftereffects of bullying. During the final scene in Joe Brancato’s production now at 59E59 Theaters, the tension is so thick that no one in the audience seems to be breathing to see how it will play out. Like McKeever’s Daniel’s Husband, the author wants us to see the events from more than one side but his message is clear by the end: parents make excuses for their children and allow for bullying to go on unchecked. Bad parenting is as bad as bullying children.
The backstory is that Kyle Campbell, a 17-year-old suburban high school student, formerly a friend of Matthew Beckman, has sent him a text: “You’re next, faggot.” Matthew’s mother Connie, a rather controlling parent, has found this on her son’s phone and contacted the principal claiming that this is a perceived threat. Kyle has been given a three day suspension. As a result, his mother Julia who prides herself on her perfect home, her perfect look, and her perfect family has invited Connie and her husband Alan Beckman to come to talk about what has happened between their sons and offer that Kyle will make an apology to Matthew.
The entire play takes place in Julia and Tate’s well-appointed upscale suburban living room. Although the Beckmans have been part of the carpool to chess tournaments and their sons have been friends in the past, they have never been to Julia and Tate’s house before. Impressed by Julia’s perfect lawn and perfect living room, they are appalled at the stuffed deer head over the mantel and the glass case to its right displaying rifles. They are a little perturbed when Julia tells them that she has invited her sister Val, formerly a close friend of Connie’s, to join them. Connie and Alan object but agree to allow Val as an “objective” person in the room. Val’s son Eric has previously been a friend of Matthew but they have drifted apart just as he has drifted away from his cousin Kyle.
It is Julia’s contention that it was just a prank and that Kyle is basically a good boy who is a bit of a rebel and occasionally does not use common sense. For Connie, this is a case of bullying and she is not happy with only three days’ detention but wants him to be expelled. Kyle has claimed that it was not a threat, and that it means nothing, but Connie is not buying that. She wants to know what her son is in for next, but there seem to be no answers.
As Connie loses her temper time and time again before the perfectly put-together Julia, they discuss Julia and Tate’s parenting and the example the rifle display has on young men. Julia insists it is a case of perception versus reality. Alan (who had been mostly listening up to this point) suddenly grabs a rifle out of the case on the wall and asks Tate if it is loaded. When Tate says that none of them are loaded, Alan points it at him: what price perception versus reality now?
The play is in three parts: Before, During and After. As things spiral out of control and the temperature rises, Connie visits Julia two weeks later after she has not been able to convince the principal to expel Kyle (it is a private school after all and the school would lose Kyle’s tuition). Connie has been blaming Julia and Tate’s parenting skills and Julia wants to scotch the rumors. We eventually find out what the text meant and all the unspoken events that led up to it that the boys would not talk about. The final scene takes place two years later after some horrifying consequences and Connie and Alan have to visit Julia and Tate under duress one last time.
McKeever seems to be saying that some parents live with the attitude of “not my son” even when the evidence is staring them in the face. Julia accuses Connie of bad parenting for going through her son’s phone, but takes no responsibility for the gun display in her living room. What may have been a prank years ago is no longer acceptable in an era of massacres at schools by disgruntled former students. When parents do not monitor what their children are doing, they are responsible for the tragic things that happen.
Under Brancato’s tense direction, the play initially unfolds slowly and then speeds up to a breathtaking pace. The contrast between the dowdy Connie and the immaculately outfitted Julia says a great deal. Kyle has apparently been allowed to do whatever he wanted and has never known any limits from his doting parents, another reprehensible form of parenting.
The five-person cast could not be better. As Julia who plays hostess in all three scenes, Mia Matthews has the sort of veneer that seems superb but we eventually see the real woman beneath who is coping with a great deal. Denise Cormier’s Connie is a woman whose moral indignation usually gets the better of her but she is invariably right. As her husband Alan, Bill Phillips is slow to burn, but he sees more clearly than others the philosophical underpinnings of an argument. Michael Frederic makes Tate a self-entitled man who ultimately has put up with a great deal, but also has to come to terms with his responsibility. As the mediator, Jolie Curtsinger as Val brings another point of view as the divorced mother of two boys who wonders why she allowed her children to witness the fights between her ex-husband and herself for so long.
Brian Prather’s suburban living room set in blues, white and beige is just the sort of enviable room that makes you want to rush home and redecorate or rent the set and move in. The costumes by Gregory Gale immediately define the characters by both temperament and economic status. The unobtrusive lighting by Martin E. Vreeland seems to require the characters to keep their voices down but that ultimately does not happen.
Michael McKeever’s After is both provocative and engrossing. While bullying is a national crisis particularly with the use of social media, very few plays have taken on this phenomenon. Evolving like a mystery story, After displays the dramatic tension that is rarely accomplished in our theater. An important play as well as a compelling production, After should not be missed.
After (through April 14, 2019)
Penguin Rep Theatre and Inproximity Theatre Company
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 646-892-7999 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission