Theater Review: AFTERGLOW (Hudson Theatre in Hollywood)

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by Marc Wheeler on May 7, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles

SKIN DEEP

As I made my way through a gaggle of gay-listers to see “Los Angeles’s steamiest show” at the Hudson Theatre in Los Angeles, that’s when I saw it – yet missed it completely – right there on the play’s poster. The advert for Afterglow features three beautiful, bare-chested men holding each other in a seemingly intimate embrace – an entanglement models find themselves in when they’ve got tickets to sell. The man on the left-side of the poster was looking straight into the camera, as if to say to the voyeur: “you know you wanna watch!” As my eyes worked their way down, there it was  – a warning in plain sight. “The climax,” the tagline read, “is just the beginning.” Having now seen Afterglow in its full glory, I gotta admit: there’s no false advertising in that. But it isn’t so much a tagline as it is fine print. After making good on its promise of an “O!” to warrant the show, the play’s pretty much done for the night.

Noah Bridgestock and Nathan Mohebbi

Josh (Noah Bridgestock) and Alex (James Hayden Rodriguez) are a gay, mid-thirties, married couple who invite a younger man, Darius (Nathan Mohebbi), into their bed for a threesome. While each of them seem to have a good time, it’s Josh with whom newcomer Darius seems most smitten. After sex, Darius invites him over to his place at noon the next day – a “sex window” between his massage clients. Because Josh and Alex have an open relationship, Darius’s request is granted. After all, the couple’s only rule for each other is: no sleepovers – a rather lenient set of boundaries, perhaps, given that the couple is soon expecting their first child. What could possibly go wrong?

James Hayden Rodriguez and Nathan Mohebbi

Afterglow premiered Off-Broadway where it had a successful run from 2017-18. It originally ran longer with an intermission, but was restructured as a 90-minute one-act. Its playwright and director, S. Asher Gelman, says the work – his first play – is based on his own real-life explorations of polyamory with his husband; with Gelman modeling the character of Josh after himself. Object of 25-year-old Darius’s affection, Josh is an affluent theater director “who comes from wealth, yet is unfazed by it.” His sexual escapades with Darius quickly bloom into more than his husband Alex bargained for when he agreed the two could see each other. As Josh tells Darius one night under a star-filled sky: “the heart wants what the heart wants.”

Noah Bridgestock, James Hayden Rodriguez and Nathan Mohebbi

While the subject of open relationships might pique the interests of playgoers, Afterglow doesn’t bring much new or compelling to the conversation. When all is said and done, the play simply serves as a cautionary tale about the importance of honest communication. It could also be construed, or misconstrued, as a statement against polyamory itself – an odd choice considering Gelman gives a shout-out to his real-life polycule in his bio. What the play lacks in substance, however, it makes up for in nudity. But even that has its risks.

Noah Bridgestock and Nathan Mohebbi

Afterglow reveals how tricky it can be in depicting erotic, believable sex onstage. Actual sex, of course, would be a logistical nightmare. And even if willing, capable actors managed to pull it off, chances are high that audiences would become so embarrassed or aroused – or awkwardly both – that they’d be completely taken out of the story. In fact, it’s possible many are with the production as it stands now. Gelman dances around this “sex obstacle” by having his actors literally … dance. Through suggestive body rolls and other such maneuvers, sex is expressed “interpretively.” While such a choice might work better if symbolism, not literalism, were the language in which this piece was otherwise communicating, here – with actors’ bits dangling – such artiness is ridiculous. With its insistence on the cash-grab of full-frontal nudity, Afterglow pushes boundaries of authenticity – only to be bitten by them in its execution.

James Hayden Rodriguez and Noah Bridgestock

For this west coast premiere, Gelman has secured the design team from the Off-Broadway production. Setting the scene is Alex Mackyol’s echoey, loungey soundtrack. This auditory dreamscape moves us from scene to scene where we find the cast – when they’re wearing anything at all – handsomely costumed by Fabian Aguilar. Best of all is Ann Beyersdorfer’s striking, minimalist set. It’s sleek and bold; most notably featuring a center-stage shower in which the trio bathe – fully nude, of course – glistening in the attractive glow of Jamie Roderick’s lighting.

Nathan Mohebbi (front) and Noah Bridgestock

Throughout the show, the actors reconfigure many hollow, black-framed cubes to suggest either furniture or new locations. It’s a fitting metaphor for the actors themselves, who seem similarly interchangeable as Hot Guy 1, 2, and 3. For all the skin they repeatedly bare, the characters are not nearly as fleshed-out as they need to be. Each character speaks more or less the same; the main difference between them, besides names and occupation, is the role they play in the story’s love triangle. And while the married couple is supposedly about a decade older, it’s hard to believe the younger Darius – as cast here by the ever-smiling Mohebbi – not understanding Josh’s pop-cultural references.

Noah Bridgestock

Performances are similarly limited. A lot of that can be blamed on the script, sure – but even so, I wanted more from the cast besides pretty looks. Even when they feud or shed tears, it’s hard to be moved. The play is relatively non-specific, with generic backstories and character motivations. At one point, Alex, a student chemist, speaks in medical jargon, as if that were a useful way for Gelman to show us who he is and distinguish him from other characters. Worse, other than having a kid on the way, it’s never quite clear why Josh and Alex are a couple we should root for. Or even Josh and Darius. Or all three. Early on, it’s clear from the script – less so in performance – that Josh is a “puppy dog” seeking attention that Alex doesn’t always want to give. But we never know why these two fell in love, why they’re right for each other, and how we should feel about Darius entering their lives. The play becomes a string of events that we watch happen, rather than a story with characters we’re invested in.

James Hayden Rodriguez, Nathan Mohebbi and Noah Bridgestock

Gelman’s play seems to suggest that his sex life makes for great theater – but does it, though? I’d argue Afterglow is nothing more than a vanity project using full-frontal threesomes to sell tickets. But, hey, it’s working. It’s already played in New York, Chicago and London. A production in Madrid coincides with this one in L.A. And productions are already lined up later this season for Ft. Lauderdale, San Juan, and Buenos Aires.

James Hayden Rodriguez and Noah Bridgestock

Look, discussions about open relationships will surely be sparked by this play, if only because it does the bare minimum of bringing them up. And nudity can be alluring, especially with a cast as chiseled as this one. But, oh, how I wanted this show to move me after getting me in my seat. After its climax at the top – as promised – Afterglow, sadly, doesn’t have much in it to offer. It just hopes you’ll stick around awhile to cuddle.

photos by Mati Gelman

Afterglow
Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 7
ends on June 19, 2022
for tickets, visit AfterglowLA

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