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So how was your Sept. 11? Hurricanes and reminiscences notwithstanding, mine was surprisingly upbeat. I caught a terrific new play about public grieving and the way the media turn tragedy into entertainment. Hadn’t heard the term “death porn” in a while. On that particular day, it was gratifying to have someone say it out loud. I laughed a lot. Felt a lot. Feel a lot better now.

Funny how sometimes it’s possible not to know what you’ve been missing until it reappears, unbidden. It’s slap-the-forehead-obvious afterward, of course, but last week, while watching Shakespeareans railing, and Passions playing, and debaters struggling through their Disputations (or Predispositions, or whatever that flotsam is at the DCJCC), I never once felt a thing for a soul on any of those stages, and I didn’t really think that that was odd. This week, I’m realizing that I haven’t felt much for stage characters in a while, though I’ve often admired acting craft, directing acumen, writerly grace.

One of the contemporary theater’s dirty little secrets is that stage artists are lately more adept at articulating feelings than at inspiring them in audiences. Partly this is because the folks out front have gotten harder to move; partly it’s because, with movies and TV manufacturing mood so casually with close-ups and music cues, theater—which is more comfortable bandying words about—has taken to abandoning feeling for argument. So audiences get intellectually engaged at theatrical events, but emotionally? Doesn’t happen often. Not the way they’re engaged by real life, anyway. And the stage needs to be heightened from life, not distant from it. Drama can’t exist without feeling.

At the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s After Ashley—which is, mind you, a satire, not a tragedy—you will most definitely feel. You’ll also laugh, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll be discomfited by your laughter. Playwright Gina Gionfriddo, who hails originally from the D.C. area and sets part of the play in Bethesda, has whipped up a timely brew of human frailty and media overkill—one that is revealed in Lee Mikeska Gardner’s snappy staging to be neatly attuned not merely to scandal-mongering tabloid journalism, but also to the more lurid “human-interest” aspects of TV’s Katrina coverage and last weekend’s 9/11 “dramatizations.”

The evening begins with the scattered, slightly manic title character (Marni Penning) and her pajama-clad, 14-year-old son, Justin (Mark Sullivan), bathed in the bluish glow of a Dr. Phil–like show on TV. Ashley’s enthralled, Justin’s appalled, and when he finally convinces her to turn off the tube, she only wants to continue in the same vein.

“If you’re kissing,” she says, by way of noting that Justin is home from school with mono, “we should have a sex talk.”

“I’m not kissing,” gulps her son.

“Let’s have one anyway,” chirps Mom, launching into a dissertation on all the mistakes she made in getting stoned, getting careless, and getting pregnant with him at 21. Justin protests that the details she’s regaling him with are wildly inappropriate (“I really can’t be your girlfriend”) but Ashley keeps going, letting him know not just that she’s grown unhappy in her own skin, but also that she has come to loathe her liberal, bleeding-heart husband, Alden (Bruce Nelson). The very quality that initially attracted her—his compassion—now strikes her as other-directed and phony. “It’s no great feat to pity strangers,” she tells Justin. “The test of humanity is to pity people you know well enough not to like.”

This seemingly offhand observation turns out to be one of the evening’s central themes—the basis for a blistering bout of father– son sparring that ends with a public flameout. It begins after an intimate domestic tragedy I can’t discuss in any detail without spoiling many of the play’s developments. Suffice it to say that as Justin becomes a national celebrity—“the 9-1-1 kid”—he also becomes alienated and sardonic. His baby fat melts away, exposing nerve endings that he has every intention of keeping raw, no matter how much psychobabble gets thrown his way. And the media mavens—as they are wont to do—keep slinging it.

Happily, Justin finds a potential ally in Julie (Deanna McGovern), a goth teen who’s both plucky enough not to be put off when he asks her what it’s like to be a “victim groupie” and smart enough to keep up with his rants. This can’t be easy. The playwright has made Justin so well-read, he could teach graduate classes in communications theory and feminist lit if he’d just stop flailing and finish high school. But Julie, who’s a college student, matches him quip for quip—and overmatches him when it comes to emotions.

Though many of Gionfriddo’s choicest barbs are aimed at the sort of bottom-feeding TV shows that turn rape and molestation victims into celebrities, she’s tapping into a more basic truth about contemporary television: that no aspect of it is free from exploitation—not theoretically sensitive dramas that anesthetize and sanitize violent crime for prime-time consumption, not news programs that “warn” viewers (in terms identical to the come-ons in movie trailers) about the sensational or grotesque images they’re about to show. No one who buys a theater ticket is likely to be proud of watching the tube (though, to judge from the laughs on opening night, most do). Small wonder Justin’s declaration that he’d be happy to lead a “back-to-shame” movement (“People on TV are eating bugs and trying to marry millionaires….Shame is an idea whose time has come”) rates a round of applause.

After Ashley does not, let’s note, offer terribly novel observations about our relationship with media, but in Gionfriddo’s hands it does offer sparklingly articulate ones. The author, a staff scribe for Law & Order: Criminal Intent, obviously knows whereof she writes, and penning lines for a teen hero seems to have liberated her to grandstand in gratifyingly overheated ways.

Gardner’s staging is so effortlessly precise in its details that you’d know the characters even without the playwright’s words. Sullivan makes Justin’s adolescent moans of discomfort as his mother gabs away about drugs and sex priceless enough that you won’t want him to grow up (though if he didn’t, you’d never get to catch the sugar-packet percussion solo with which he punctuates and derails one of his father’s anecdotes). Boyishly ingratiating even when he’s on the attack, Sullivan is a wonder, and he heads a splendid cast of eccentrics. Penning’s loving—if drug- and insecurity-addled—mom gamely holds her own against him, and McGovern’s gawky, smart-as-a-whip goth girl is an appealingly impish romantic match.

The lad’s adversaries come across as nearly as nuanced. Nelson makes Justin’s dad a far more empathetic nebbish-turned-opportunist than he initially seems. When this father stands stock-still with his back to the audience after one of his son’s betrayals, you don’t need to see his face to know what sort of pain his eyes are registering. Paul Morella’s pop-psychology-spouting TV producer is a believable steely-eyed creep. And before Michael Willis’ Truman Capote– esque “guide for erotic exploration” so much as says a word, he has already lived up to the moniker (“the Marquis de Sade of the suburbs”) Justin hurls at him.

James Kronzer’s sliding panels and pixellated backdrop, Melanie Clark’s deftly character-defining costumes, and the lighting by Lisa L. Ogonowski, which transforms essentially open space into everything from a TV studio to a Florida beach, are sure assets. They help turn a play that, despite a high-profile cast in New York, got dismissed there as chilly and schematic into a deeply affecting social critique. If smarter, more emotionally true work has been done on a stage in D.C. this season, I’ve not seen it.

Caryl Churchill’s father–son(s) drama, A Number, got considerably better press in Manhattan, and it’s being staged at Studio Theater with what local audiences might well view as a dream cast: Ted van Griethuysen and Tom Story, who last appeared together in the troupe’s fine mounting of Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love. In that one, the two actors both played multiple facets of the same character—poet A.E. Housman. In A Number, Story gets to pull off a similar trick, all by himself.

The play is about a father named Salter (van Griethuysen) and a man named Bernard (Story), who has always assumed he is Salter’s only son. In a sense, he is; he’s just not alone in that status. Salter, it seems, botched his parenting responsibilities so badly that he wanted another chance. Or rather, he wanted the same chance a second time. So he had his son cloned.

What Salter didn’t know was that scientists would need to take multiple stabs at making the new Bernard, and that not all of those stabs would necessarily perish in the process. Now, there are multiple Bernards walking around (possibly as many as 20), and the one he’s raised—and apparently raised well, this time—has encountered one of the others. Bernard naturally has questions—and his father’s responses aren’t very often satisfying.

“I wanted you, again,” says the old man.

“It wasn’t me, again,” groans the son, and he certainly has a point.

It is, not to put too fine a point on it, a Beckettian point—existential at its core, difficult enough to grapple with that it feels ripe for exploration onstage. Although Churchill largely ignores the mechanics of cloning itself—no symbolic test tubes or petri dishes make appearances in Debra Booth’s open, shag-carpeted setting—the mechanics of playing a clone are front and center, throughout. In Joy Zinoman’s astute, emotionally grounded staging, van Griethuysen gets to play a flummoxed, increasingly guilt-ridden dad much as he would in a standard father– son drama, pleading, cajoling, threatening, and comforting his variously begotten offspring. Story, meanwhile, has the trickier task of playing the second Bernard, and the first, and at least one other variation, without making the evening feel like an acting exercise. As he segues from confused, scared kid, to angry ruffian, to…well, I should leave the hourlong show its surprises. Let’s just say that Story is admirably restrained in differentiating their mannerisms.

Production elements are similarly subdued—which has the effect of focusing attention on the fragmented phrases with which Churchill lets us know her characters are fumbling toward an understanding of nature-vs.-nurture issues as old as time. Apart from a decision to go with British accents, there’s not much in Studio’s staging to quibble about. Whether the ongoing debate on cloning is advanced, or even illuminated much, by Churchill’s A Number is debatable, but as her characters struggle with implications no audience member has yet had to confront, she sets out the parameters of the discussion clearly.CP