By most accounts, Christopher Shinn’s play “Now or Later” was a rollicking success when it premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2008. A political-domestic thriller set on the eve of the US presidential election, the play looks unflinchingly at the irresolvable gulf between extreme Islamic fundamentalism and the Western notion of freedom of speech, all told through the lens of one American family, who are about to become the first family. The drama was “urgent” and “riveting” in The Times of London. “Gripping” and “daring” in The Telegraph. “Unmissable” in The Independent. The run was extended by popular demand.
Four years later, the play is finally making its American premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company, where it began previews Friday and runs through Nov. 10. Why has it taken so long for “Now or Later” to be produced in the United States, Shinn’s home country? “I spent a lot of time and money in therapy trying to answer that question,” the playwright says. “It was my most successful play. I thought there would be a war between theaters here to do the play first.”
The onetime wunderkind, who grew up in Hartford, was 23 when he debuted at the Royal Court in 1998 with “Four.” Since then, many of his dramas have premiered across the pond, followed quickly by US productions. But not “Now or Later.” It was rejected by many “celebrated producers,” Shinn says, and the dismissal stung. The experience even inspired him to write “Picked,” his 2011 play about a successful actor whose career takes a downward spiral. “It’s painful. There’s no alternative to that pain,” he says.
Michael Wilson, Shinn’s longtime collaborator, who is directing the Huntington production, remembers being told that the play “felt dated.” The crux of the plot is this: On election night, the son of the soon-to-be president-elect shows up in incendiary photographs that are posted on the Internet. The young man and his friend, students at an unnamed prestigious academic institution, are dressed as the prophet Mohammed and a fundamentalist Christian pastor. The images are discussed but not depicted onstage, and what began as an “Ivy League kerfuffle” threatens to escalate into an international crisis.
Initially, when the folks at the Huntington decided to produce the play, they thought it might be topical because the candidate’s son (named John, after his father, of course) is gay, and marriage equality was in the news. Then in August, photos of Prince Harry playing billiards in the buff emerged, creating quite the scandal at Buckingham Palace — and a timely talking point for “Now or Later.”
But then a tragedy unfolded in Libya last month, when Islamic extremists attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, killing ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The assailants were ostensibly enraged over an amateur film called “Innocence of Muslims,” a grainy embarrassment of a production seen only on YouTube and apparently made as a deliberate provocation to the Muslim world. Political uproar ensued in the current presidential race, with well-documented invectives being hurled before all the facts were known.
“Sadly, the world caught up to the play,” says Wilson. “It’s beyond ironic.”
When Shinn was writing “Now or Later,” he was deeply engaged in the notion of irreconcilable differences between certain cultures and systems of belief. A longtime student of psychoanalysis who dutifully sees his therapist five times a week, the playwright adheres to Freud’s theory of the “return of the repressed,” the idea that unconscious thoughts or feelings reemerge at one point or another. Thus, the title. “If these issues don’t feel immediate now, they will later. Pay attention to the play,” Shinn says.
Current events have created an eerie sense of life imitating art, which fuels the rehearsals. The creative team watched President Obama’s speech to the United Nations, which addressed the controversy. But while the atmosphere is charged with political discourse, the play itself is not a diatribe. Rather, it’s a dialectic that constantly shifts back and forth between dramatically different perspectives. Nor is it exclusively a “political” play; it’s also a domestic tragedy. “Chris uses the family dynamic to blow up a political issue and look at it from different points of view,’’ says Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois.
The personal crisis in the play underscores the global predicament. As aides and family members march in and out of the hotel room where John is sequestered, the family baggage is revealed. The young man does not want to be a political pawn who is trotted onstage at convenient moments. He has long felt that his very birth was “strategic.” While he admits that his actions were sophomoric — “I got hammered and acted like an idiot” — he also contends that his arguments are complicated and nuanced and cannot be reduced to a simple sound bite. He doesn’t want to be part of a manufactured political “narrative.” He just wants to live a “normal life.”
And like a grown man channeling his inner adolescent, he doesn’t want to apologize.
The domestic impasse creates the tension — and the humor — in the play. “You have all these wonderful cerebral ideas ricocheting off the walls of the scenery, but there is also a family story with a heart,’’ says Wilson. Will the young man implode or will the world explode? Will the new first family be able to negotiate what some see as a healthy compromise and what others see as the ultimate subjugation of self?
Shinn, like the character John, is skeptical about the nature of presidential politics and contends that decisions are not based on convictions, but on opinion polls and political viability. “These people hold focus groups on what color ties to wear!” John says at one point. Shinn is even more dismissive. “The play doesn’t delve into what [the president-elect] really believes,’’ he says. “It’s irrelevant.”
What is relevant is that the play is finally being given a life on an American stage. “A lot of theater people are coming up to see it,’’ says DuBois. “There is a lot of excitement among artistic directors, and there are a lot of eyes looking at this production.”
It seems Shinn was prescient with both his subject and his title. He is deeply influenced by what he calls the “tragic thinking” of Shakespeare, the Greeks, and Freud. He has no use for pop psychology or for ideologues who make inflammatory films. “It’s stupid,” is all he will say about “Innocence of Muslims.”
He hopes his play will stimulate discussion and shed light on what he views as a particular kind of tragedy. “Only certain points of view are allowed to be aired publicly or to be supported by corporate media and our government,’’ he says. “Certain kinds of suffering and pain are hidden and suppressed.” He is talking about a psychic death, a compromise of conviction that shatters the soul. And to Shinn, that is why theater matters and why this production is so close to his heart. “The theater,’’ he says, “is one of the only places where you can confront your psyche.”