A video’s collateral damage in ‘Now or Later’

BOSTON — It is Election Day, 2008, and an Ivy League college student named John (Grant McDermott) is in a hotel room in an unnamed Southern state, watching with a friend while the returns come in as his father, a Democratic candidate for president also named John, is on the verge of being elected president.

Tom Nelis and Grant McDermott in the Huntington Theatre Company’s
American Premiere of  “Now or Later.” Photo: Paul Marotta

It should be a time for unrestrained joy for the family, but a campaign aide named Marc (Ryan Wilson) is banging on the door, wanting to talk to John Jr. about a few blurry photos that have shown up on the Internet.
The controversial photos ignite a firestorm that threatens to tear apart a family in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Christopher Shinn’s timely political drama “Now or Later,” purposely presented during the presidential campaign and now having its American premiere at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA.
John Jr., played with easy grace by McDermott, has been able to determine for himself what role he will play in his father’s campaign, and he has decided to stay out of the limelight. As a gay man, he has also decided to stay in the closet publicly, but has been out to family and friends for years, and is still mourning the break-up of his relationship.
In the weeks leading up to the election, he has become involved in a controversy over free speech on campus involving Islamic students. He decides to make fun of the situation by going to a campus party dressed as the Prophet Mohammad, and his friend Matt (Michael Goldsmith) goes as a prominent evangelical preacher, and pictures and a video taken by someone at the party show both being involved in incidents in extremely poor taste.
The photos and video quickly goes viral and all hell breaks loose overseas. But when the campaign goes into Defcon 3 and becomes involved in the controversy, John Jr. finds their pleas for him to issue an apology to be an affront to free speech, his own principles and the agreement he has made with his parents, forged during his troubled teen years.
“I don’t see the need for an apology,” says John Jr., prompting the standoff.
Alexandra Neil is fine as sympathetic mother Jessica (Alexandra Neil), balancing her concern for her son and the promise she made him with the needs of her husband.
It takes a while for Shinn to set the stage for the later fireworks, and early on things are a little mopey until the entrance of free-wheeling Tracy, played by Adriane Lenox, who injects instant life into the production as a firebrand campaign worker friendly to John Jr. who is sent into the fray to get more information.
The production’s best moments are between John Jr. and his father, John Sr., played with cool precision by Tom Nelis. They find common ground at first, but sparks fly as the son confronts the father over positions he has taken that are at odds with his real beliefs, and the political accommodations the father has made over the years, including being seen with an evangelical pastor Jack Jr. deems homophobic.
The parents face a dilemma: Keep the deal and the carefully-reforged relationship with their son and probably assure his well-being, at a possible great cost to a political career, or force an apology and possibly see him go “off the rails” again.
“Now or Later” is briskly directed by Michael Wilson, who showed a deft touch with the genre in the recent Broadway revival of “The Best Man,”  and it addresses several timely topics — including religion, political correctness and free speech — in an effective way, offers an interesting backstage look at  political campaigns and shows the collateral damage a mere photo or video can inflict on all involved in our digital age.
The Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Christopher Shinn’s “Now or Later,” until Nov. 10 at the Calderwood Pavilion of the Boston Center for the Arts. Directed by Michael Wilson. For tickets, go to huntingtontheatre.org, call 617 266 0800 or the box offices at the BU Theatre or the Calderwood Pavilion.

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