Review: Afterglow (Southwark Playhouse)

S Asher Gelman’s bracingly modern three-man play comes to London

Sean Hart and Danny Mahoney in Afterglow
Sean Hart and Danny Mahoney in Afterglow
© Darren Bell

"If you're looking for penis, you've come to the right place". I kid you not, that review pull quote was used on the website for the original New York production of S Asher Gelman's bracingly modern three-man play. As an enticement it clearly worked: the Off-Broadway run was extended repeatedly. As a statement about the show, now receiving its London premiere at the ever-enterprising Southwark Playhouse, it's up-front but accurate: I can't think of any other play within living memory that has featured as much male nudity as this one.

Undoubtedly this will be a selling point to many people but, truthfully, focussing on nudity obscures the fact that Gelman has written a blisteringly honest, commendably non-judgemental examination of gay intimacy, polyamorous relationships and the toll sexual freedom can take on the individuals involved.

Tom O'Brien's engrossing production opens with a pounding club beat and the strobe-lit spectacle of a trio of fit young men going at it hammer and tongs: La Cage aux Folles this is not. Once the action stops and the talking starts, we quickly learn that we're in present day NYC and that theatre director Josh and chemistry graduate student Alex are a married couple soon to receive their first surrogate baby, while younger Darius is a pick-up they've just met online. Instead of leaving it as a one-time hook-up though, the guys forge an ongoing connection and two thirds of this human triangle start to develop feelings for each other that muddy the waters of what was initially intended to be casual, no-strings sex.

The overriding message of the play would seem to be that just because you can sexually have everything that you want, it doesn't necessarily mean that you should. It also accurately and wittily captures the way that the increasingly dehumanising practise of meeting people using mobile apps and online sites green lights shoddy behaviour and an ever evolving quest for unattainable perfection.

If played by less engaging actors than Sean Hart and Danny Mahoney, Josh and Alex could be pretty infuriating company: both have busy, urbane lives, gym-honed bodies, fulfilling careers, plenty of money, their own Manhattan apartment…and each other. Jesse Fox's Darius, lonely and adrift in the big city and not nearly as streetsmart and emotionally tough as he thinks he is, is a convincing catalyst to challenge their slightly smug status quo.

If Gelman's script sounds a little like superior soap opera writing at times, it's because he has accurately caught the way real people talk to each other. Whether arguing about their career choices, baby name options, or articulating very difficult feelings, almost none of the dialogue rings false here. In all honesty, the nudity does become a little gratuitous after the initial blast and there is a fully clothed reconciliation (of sorts) scene between two of the characters near the conclusion that actually feels far more intimate than the violent, naked copulation at the beginning.

Hart and Mahoney fully convince as a couple, the former puppyish, charming and reckless, with the latter more watchful, cautious and less sexually voracious. Fox touchingly suggests a deep well of longing beneath the surface sass and easy intimacy, his cry of "I need to come first place with somebody" carrying real weight and emotional truth. It's a beautifully acted show.

It's refreshing to see a gay play that doesn't mention HIV or AIDS, nor does it feature characters eaten up with self-loathing and shame. In the sense that it unflinchingly depicts how an apparently rock solid relationship can be put asunder by an unexpected external force, it is surprisingly universal. It would be naive however to suggest that many audience members won't be making the trip to Southwark primarily tempted by the thought of naked flesh. They may just be shocked though by how captivated they are by the absorbing human tragicomedy being played out.