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Arts

Stage Review

‘Now or Later’ serves a powerful brew of religion, rights, and politics

Grant MacDermott portrays a gay college student who creates turmoil on election night for his father, a presidential candidate.

Paul Marotta

Grant MacDermott portrays a gay college student who creates turmoil on election night for his father, a presidential candidate.

Heaven knows there has been no shortage this month of high-profile, and occasionally high-temperature, political debates.

But the clash of ideas in the Huntington Theatre Company production of Christopher Shinn’s “Now or Later’’ contains an especially volatile ingredient, one that’s virtually guaranteed to bring even the most arcane arguments to a boil: family.

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A complex father-son relationship lies at the heart of Shinn’s nuanced and thought-provoking drama about freedom of speech, the West’s relationship with the Muslim world, the challenges to gay rights, presidential politics, the contradictions of liberalism, and the perils of fundamentalism, whatever the religion.

It’s a heady and provocative brew, and it’s over too soon. You won’t often hear a reviewer complain that a play is too short, but the 80-minute, one-act “Now or Later’’ feels truncated. It’s a testament to Shinn’s skill at conveying multiple sides to intricate arguments that I was left wanting more.

Within the slender framework of Shinn’s 2008 drama, now receiving its US premiere, Huntington director Michael Wilson makes shrewd use of silence and space to underscore the sense of familial tension. When a son says to a father, “I don’t feel a gulf,’’ the physical distance between them, along with their body language, sends a message that contradicts those words.

This is not Wilson’s first excursion into the politics of the personal. He was at the helm for this year’s snappy, starry, and soapy Broadway revival of “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man.’’ However, that drama was set during a presidential convention in 1960, virtually prehistoric times when compared with the digital age, when a nonstop news cycle feasts on what one character in “Now or Later’’ calls “amorphous, gossipy personal stuff that can disproportionately impact the discourse.’’

John Jr., a college student sensitively portrayed by Grant MacDermott, gets caught up in and buffeted by the realities of the online universe. As the play opens, it’s election night in 2008, and he is in a hotel room (given a sleek, contemporary, and suitably chilly look by set designer Jeff Cowie) in an unnamed Southern state as presidential election returns are broadcast.

His father, John Sr. (Tom Nelis, excellent), the Democratic presidential candidate, is on the cusp of victory, with state after state falling into the win column. (Ohio looms large. Plus ca change ....) At this very moment, though, photos have gone viral of John Jr. at an off-campus party dressed up as the Prophet Mohammed, wearing a turban made of pillowcases.

That’s not all John Jr. did. There is more to come, but that initial revelation is more than enough to cause a campaign aide (Ryan King) to scurry to his room, followed shortly thereafter by John Jr.’s mother, Jessica (an amusingly starchy Alexandra Neil). Fearing a severe backlash from the Muslim world, they want him to issue an apology. Even Tracy (a winning Adriane Lenox), a strategist with whom John enjoys a warm relationship, makes clear that he does not understand how offensive and potentially harmful his actions were.

Yet John Jr. is unrepentant, even defiant. With the eloquence of a character written by Aaron Sorkin (and with a Sorkin-like tendency to pontificate in C-SPAN-worthy detail), he makes a case for his action as a salvo on behalf of freedom of speech and against the kind of fundamentalism that would deny rights to others, including gay people like him.

“Now or Later’’ weaves in enough back story about John Jr.’s troubled adolescence and his relationship with his career-driven parents to raise the question of whether his behavior at the party was an attempt to sabotage his father’s big moment. Speaking of his parents, he sardonically informs his friend Matt (Michael Goldsmith) that “Everything they do is strategic. Giving birth to me was strategic . . . Their entire lives have been organized around my dad becoming president.’’

Yet a strength of “Now or Later’’ is that Shinn does not reduce John Sr. and Jessica — or anyone else — to cartoon characters. When John Sr. and John Jr. have their inevitable showdown, the emotions of father and son get to a raw place that is way beyond politics.

Don Aucoin can be reached at ­aucoin@globe.com.
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