SALT LAKE CITY – Fresh from Off-Broadway, Utah Repertory Theater Company presents Afterglow, a raw and intimate one-act play. Directed by Josh Patterson and written by S. Asher Gelman, Afterglow is a relationship drama that explores the emotional, intellectual, and physical connections between three men. Josh (played by Johnny Hebda) and Alex (A. J. Neuschwander) are married and are soon expecting a baby through surrogacy. They are also in an open relationship. All was going well for the couple until they met Darius (played by Sterling Shane Allen), which complicated their relationship. After a sexual encounter involving the three characters, Josh pursues a relationship and later falls in love with Darius, which may have been more than Alex was hoping for. The characters are forced to evaluate their relationships and desires, as well as the relationships between friendship, sex, and love.
Gelman’s script was weak in many ways, and the play would have benefited from more workshopping in the developmental stages. While I appreciated the casual and modern language, as well as the subject matter, the plot was lacking context and complexity. I found myself becoming caught up in plot holes and unneeded information, which surprised me considering the script is less than a full 90 minutes long. Additionally, the play ends abruptly and without much resolution. While I do not expect plays to end happily or neat (I am usually most pleased when they do not), the end came so suddenly that it was jarring and seemed lazy. The script also does not noticeably offer much as far as character development, making the characters’ performances flat and unmotivated.
Having only three characters in an intimate play such as this, it is imperative that the actors are well cast and can create chemistry with each other. Unfortunately, this chemistry was lacking, particularly sexually. At the beginning, all of the relationships seemed forced without real connection. Even though all of the characters are extremely touchy with each other, kissing frequently, it was in these sexual or romantic moments where the chemistry was the least existent. Although I never was able to fully believe in the reality of the relationships, the chemistry did improve throughout, and was much stronger during scenes of tension where the characters are fighting, rather than love making.
The weak script led to various acting follies, as the actors were not given much to work with. Still, as Josh, Hebda was subpar. His exaggerated acting style was not fitting for such an intimate and genuine role. I had a hard time believing he wasn’t trying too hard and forcing his character, instead of taking a natural approach. It is largely because of this that I think the chemistry struggled throughout, and made it hard to grasp his character’s behavioral motivations. Allen as Darius was fairly unremarkable, though he had his pleasing moments. Neuschwander as Alex was by far the standout, perhaps causing his fellow actors to appear weaker. The moments where he shined were in those of intense vulnerability as he struggles with Josh’s new relationship with Darius. In these moments, it was easy for me to see both characters’ sides of the issue, and I felt for both of them.
Afterglow contains many slow scene changes. Patterson made use of these scene changes by having the actors engage with each other to depict action and change in local while they are moving various set pieces. While this helped to fill in some of the plot gaps that may not have been explained otherwise, the dragged out nature of the scene changes in dim lighting caused a lag in pacing in the already short play. The choice to have the actors move around the stage at these times with stylized movements or dancing while techno and pop music, similar to that in a night club played, was odd to me (sound design also by Patterson). I did not find the abstract scene changes particularly helpful, instead they induced boredom.
Regrettably, Afterglow was not my favorite production of the year. While I felt the production was largely flawed, there is still good to be found. I appreciate Utah Rep taking risks and pushing the boundaries with their content, which this show definitely does, as it contains mature themes and language, and full nudity. Very rarely do Utah audiences get to see unconventional relationships on stage. As the script states, there is “no fairy tale on polyamory,” though this is a reality for some. Afterglow demonstrates that non-traditional relationships can bring out new emotions, ideas, and feelings that can be hard to initially understand or cope with. I enjoyed how the play depicted both the possible significant benefits, as well as harsher realities of non-traditional relationships. The characters attempt to navigate our human complexities and how we can satisfy all of our needs, communicating themes that I am still ruminating on. Borrowing a phrase from the play, “love is easy-relationships are work,” however you choose to define them.