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This saucy gay comedy-drama has been a cult hit in New York, but its UK premiere is wearying and cliched
'Afterglow' transfers to Waterloo East Theatre in Autumn 2019. This review is from its UK premiere at Southwark Playhouse.
Josh, a theatre director, and Alex, a graduate student, are a married couple in New York in their thirties, in an open relationship. After they hook up with Darius, a massage therapist who’s ten years younger, Alex lets Josh continue seeing Darius alone. How will this affect their relationship?
Open relationships aren’t limited to gay couples, but they’re certainly a discussed aspect of twenty-first-century gay dating. In principle, then, ‘Afterglow’ has an intriguing, topical premise. But US writer S Asher Gelman’s hit off-Broadway play – and Tom O’Brien’s UK premiere staging of it – woefully fails to follow through.
There’s one funny line in ‘Afterglow’, about the Bible inventing polyamory. But the rest is a turgid slog through clichés, half-baked philosophising about love and the kind of self-important earnestness that makes you crave the deadeningly bland club beat that divides scenes.
Lurking at the play’s edges, there’s some potentially interesting stuff about the emotional toll that living in a ruthlessly expensive city like New York takes on relationships. The age gap between Darius and Alex and Josh, who are having a baby, also looms as a complicating factor. But this flattens out into yet more lifeless dialogue.
It’s also depressing to see yet another gay production in London implicitly perpetuating a gym-toned body and a six-pack as the desirable physical standard. Josh is the only character on stage to make a deal of ‘being in shape’. And yet it’s possible to suffer pec blindness from the entire cast. If the social pressure to look a certain way as a gay man was part of the story that ‘Afterglow’ wanted to tell, it might be different. But it isn’t.
Instead, we get a lot of soulless nudity and mechanical writhing around in the shower in this production’s admirably well-plumbed set. The number of times that the show contrives to get the cast to drop their boxers while delivering a leaden monologue about how tortured they are could be the basis for a drinking game.
Most damningly, though, the outcome of Alex, Josh and Darius’s entanglement never feels in doubt. To be sure, open relationships can be complex arrangements. But, ultimately, ‘Afterglow’ is so conservative in its outlook, it doesn’t so much treat polyamory as a potential emotional minefield as it detonates the entire landscape within minutes.
‘Afterglow’ feels like a straight play in gay drag – a wasted opportunity to portray real lives in real ways.