Afterglow, The Interview: The Allure, the Hope, and the Risk of the Heart.
In the heat of last summer, I had the pleasure of seeing Midnight Theatricals’ Afterglow, a two hour two act exploration of a gay NYC couple flirting with the very topical idea of openness, communication, and art of the modern marriage. It’s a thoughtful and compelling dissertation on the redefining of romantic coupledom by writer and director S. Asher Gelman, a first time playwright. He clearly understands gay culture and the way twenty and thirty year old New York homosexuals speak to one another and think about their world. So I was curious what these young actors would have to say about these characters that they play nightly. Luckily I had the opportunity to sit down and speak to two out of the three fine actors and hear first hand their thoughts on the play and its evolution to the much improved, tighter, and far more solid 90 minute one act production.
First to the table, was one of the actors who has been with the production from the beginning of its run at The Loft at the Davenport Theatre, Brandon Haagenson (Theatre Row’s The Vanity), who plays the puppy dog romantic theatre director, Josh.
Josh is one half of the very appealing gay couple that are in their fifth year together and at the center of this surprisingly compelling relationship drama. Played with a winning mischievious smile while also brandishing a convincing argument for sexual and emotional openness, Josh is married to the more linear and structured Alex, initially played by the appealing Robbie Simpson (Berkshire Theater Festival’s A Class Act) when I saw it eight months ago, but is now played very convincingly by ____(-).
Coming in midway through the interview and also new to Afterglow, David Merten (-) joined the conversation. He is now the new Darius who just recently took over the part from Patrick Reilly (La Mirada’s American Idiot). Here’s what these two very thoughtful and generous actors (this was my very first interview) had to say about relationships, hope, sex apps, nudity, surrogate babies, and Afterglow, the hit off-Broadway play that keeps getting extended and extended.
Ross: So why don’t we start with you telling me a little about yourself and what brought you to the project. And what your first, initial opinion of it was.
BH: I’ve been an actor in the city for eight years now. I came here a year after college. And I actually come from a musical theater world. I sing and dance. And so that was the bulk of my career in my 20’s. And lately, I wanted to get into more serious plays, stuff that had something to say, stuff that there’s a reason that it’s being done right now. And when I saw the breakdown for this it was all about the love triangle. Here’s a couple and they open their relationship up. And it sounded sexy. And bold. So, of course, that piqued my interest. But then, when I looked at the sides for it– when I looked at the two scenes that they asked us to audition with– one of them was a fight that I was having with my husband. And just the way that they were connecting and not connecting with each other, the way that they were screaming at each other– it’s this weird, non sequitur argument. It’s like, “What are they even fighting about?” They’re all over the place. But it really means something to both of them, what they’re trying to get at. And I thought that’s something really fun to play. That’s something I’ve seen my parents do. That’s something I’ve seen couples do in public. That’s something I’ve seen my friends, who are dating each other, do. And so that scene of arguing with my husband was one of my favorite things that drew me to the project.
Ross: And what was the other scene?
BH: The other scene [laughter] is a monologue where I’m getting stoned with my boyfriend. And I compare our relationship to Woody Allen and Soon-Yi….It’s a really silly scene but it’s actually really sweet. Because Josh finds a parallel where he compares himself to finding romance in a place that you wouldn’t expect. And then, of course, his boyfriend is like, “Wait. Woody Allen and Soon-Yi? They’re decades apart. She was sort of his step-daughter. What are you saying?” And Josh is all caught up in his words like, “Wait, wait. That’s not what I meant.” And it’s this really cute, sweet thing.
Ross: So tell me, what do you think of your character, Josh as a person, when you first read it?
BH: I think Josh dives really quickly. I think he’s the first person to jump. He jumps before anyone even says ‘Jump.’ You know what I mean? I’m actually a much more cautious person than that. But that’s one of the reasons that I love playing him. I love that freedom to just– whatever you’re feeling, whatever you see in someone. That little spark behind someone’s eyes and you just go after it. And you just decide to chase whatever that impulse is, all the way down a tunnel that most people wouldn’t go. And most people, when they’re watching the show, they look at what I’m doing [laughter], and they’re like, “Dude. Don’t–” they like see the car colliding before it does. But that’s kind of fun, you know?
Ross: Here’s something I wrote when I last saw the production: “There are beautiful bits of transition movement that had the grace and insight of a ballet. Shedding light into the inner conflicts of the characters, that only helped enhance our engagement in the three. Regardless, a good, solid edit bringing the piece down to a more compact, 80 or 90-minutes, might be the best gift.” And so what is your impression of what has changed now that the show is a 90 minute one-act and not the 2 hour two act play I saw previously?
BH: You were quoting yourself, right? Your brilliant review of Afterglow [laughter]. That’s all true. I love that you describe the transition as balletic. We’ve kept that. We’ve definitely kept the movement element. That’s where the play lives and breathes for me, is in those transitions. That always reminds me where I am with each of the characters at any given point of the story.
Ross: The interpersonal stuff is pretty amazing in those moments. It tells us so much about them.
BH: Yeah. And you know, that slowly transforms as we go forward. We found ways that– the character of my husband, Joe and I, we kiss each other in the first transition. And audience members wondered, “Do you like that actor? Are you into him?” And I was like, “I’m playing his husband [laughter].” I do that because he’s my husband…– you know what I mean? And then we’re mad at each other later in the transitions. And I really like that we’ve kept that. It has changed. The story unfolds a lot faster now. We introduced the element of money and the idea that these two– not to give away too much– but when I start helping out the character of my boyfriend, and I don’t tell my husband, it’s like, “Yeah. Perhaps that money is mine to do what I want with.” But I’m still hiding something from the character of my husband. And that’s a new plot point that I really like, and I think it is the one that gets the most reaction. That’s where we get the Wendy Williams/Geraldo, “Oh no you didn’t,” from the audience.
Ross: Yes, and in that same aspect, I wrote; “Basically, this is a public service announcement to young, single, gay men to beware of the seductiveness of the immature, married, gay man who wants more, but won’t give more in the end.” Thoughts?
BH: Wants more but won’t give more. That is very astute of you [laughter]. Seriously.
Ross: Your character really rang true to this idea of constantly wanting more– validation, attention, romance. Wanting, but in the end, not giving.
BH: Yeah. That’s a huge theme of the play, is, “What do I need from you? And what are you willing to give? What do I need from you that I can ask for? And what do I need from you that should almost be taken for granted because I shouldn’t have to ask for x, y, and z from you because you’re my husband.” And then, “What happens when you look elsewhere for that? Are you allowed to look elsewhere? Are you allowed to find a temporary fix when you’re just hooking up with someone? What if there’s a part of the love element there? The ‘understanding of each other’ that you find in someone temporary?” That’s a really dangerous thing. And a lot of people in their 20’s talk about things that they’re looking for; a short term fix to something. They’re looking for temporary answers and as people grow older they start to think more long term. I think Josh still thinks short term. And so he’s honestly surprised that he’s gotten himself into a mess.
BH: He has a line that he says, “Well, we can still have that. Nothing has changed.” And he doesn’t understand that he’s made dents in the marriage that can’t be fixed. Because he’s not always thinking like a 35-year-old [laughter].
Ross: There was a scene I remembered where it was almost like he was in a catatonic state of depression.
BH: There’s a lot of things that fall apart for the character. Very few of them are irreversible. They’re all things that he spilled on the carpet. And that stain is not coming out. He’s a kid who thinks, “We can just clean it up. No, it’s fine.” And that’s the scene when he realizes that he’s crossed the point of no return. And that’s obvious to the other two characters and to the audience. But it’s not obvious to him. And there are people that are like that. Everyone is like that in some way at some point. Everyone has done something when they burned a bridge behind them and than, they look back and are honestly surprised that they can’t cross it. That they can’t go back to square one with someone. So yeah, that’s the scene where Josh realizes, “Oh, my life is different now that I’ve done this. My marriage is different. I’m going to be a different father. My husband is going to view me as a different father.” And that’s a scary place to be in for any person.
Ross: So how does it change the relationship, you think, as it moves forward? How does the relationship proceed in the new version?
BH: Moving forward from that– I mean, Alex does something in that scene that most everyone can’t believe. He lets me go back to my boyfriend. And that’s part of the show where a lot of people start to divide and start to follow one character through the rest of the play and really side with someone, and really side against someone else. That’s the part of the show where Alex does, literally, everything he can to keep this marriage working. And Josh still goes back to his boyfriend.
Ross: What are your thoughts on that? Who’s side are you on?
BH: It depends on the night. It really does. I mean, again, I’m not the kind of person that Josh is. I’m a lot more cautious than he is. But a lot of other people will read that as spontaneity, read that as a care-free, just goes which ever way the wind takes him personality. There’s a lot that’s attractive about that. There’s a lot of people that watch the show and side with him the whole time, so, I’m actually not here to judge Josh. I’m here to try and find every little way I can to justify what he goes through, because it is an honest thing that people go through all the time in marriage. And marriages survive. So it’s not for me to say, “Oh, I can’t believe that he does–” Because people do what they do.
[David Merten arrives at this moment, and joins in with the conversation.]
Ross: Hello David, welcome. So let me ask you a question. What was it like for you to step into something like this?
DM: Well, admittedly, it’s my first time, ever, stepping in to a replacement track like this. I’ve never experienced such a quick rehearsal process. So at first it was daunting. I always have had a pretty strong work ethic. And I always pick things up quickly. But this is quicker than I’ve ever had to pick anything up. So it was, for me, immediately digging into the script, immediately watching the show as many times as I could. And just getting up on my feet and saying, “Okay. This is how it’s happening. And this is a great visual example of what I’m about to digest. And then, for me, it was, “Okay. I need to put it in my body. And I need to see how it works for me.” And then, how do I put my spin on it. I think that was what was freeing about. That they really gave me the freedom to make it my own. They’re like, “We don’t want a carbon copy of what’s happening with the actor who’s playing it currently– who’s playing it beautifully. But you’re a different person. You have a different voice, a different body, a different mind. So it’s inevitably gonna be different.” That was such a gift.
Ross: I wanted to ask you, Brandon, when we were talking before David got here, that there was a point in time where you were doing the two-act onstage and rehearsing the one-act. What was that like? And then, I’d like to bring in the idea of another transition– doing the play with the original actor (–) and rehearsing with David, the replacement during the day. Those were two very difficult and unique transitions, I imagine.
BH: As far as overlapping the two-act version and the one-act version, not only were there different added plot points, not only were they different lengths, but also we were changing, word-by-word, the syntax of lines. And so that, of course, was challenging, and was a little bit of a mind-game, trying [laughter] to figure out what is about to come out of my mouth. But also, it was kind of cool because the old line became the subtext for the new line. And it was okay to have the old version in mind. Because some things that we determined, “Oh, maybe this is extraneous. Or maybe this three-sentence thing can be boiled down to this one-sentence line. You still had those other two sentences informing you.” So in that way, yeah, of course, it was puzzling. But it was really fun to play–
Ross: I don’t know how you do it. I’m not an actor but–
BH: I don’t know how I did it either [laughter].
Ross: So what was it like to rehearse with someone else?
BH: That was really cool because as spontaneous as what Patrick and I would do, you do fall into a rhythm when you do something eight times a week, for as many months as we did. And so there did come a time– I was always listening to him and I was always playing off of him, but I was falling into the rythm of what I was saying, and sort of taking for granted, what I was saying. And then–I would turn around in rehearsal and say it to David– and David would say a line at me and it sounded totally different. It made me have a different reaction and I had a couple moments where my muscle memory would say something back the same way but I was in a different show. Literally. It was a real exercise and, “Wait, what do you want in this scene? What are you falling in love with? What are you looking for? What excites you about this person?” Because yeah, they’re the same monolouge about what dating is like with Grindr, and Tinder, and apps. But they have a very different take on it. And it has a different tone.
Ross: I’m glad you brought those up. One thing I wrote in my review last year that I really liked is how well the writer sort of got how 30 year olds and 20 year olds talk to each other. There’s a very well written scene when Darius has quite a well thought out talk about the sex apps.
BH: How it’s changing dating. How it’s changing expectations.
Ross: Now, I wanted to ask you, David about that scene. So I’m gonna read you what I wrote and tell me what you think. “We all know the type. So it is very apparent from the first interaction that Darius needs to walk away, especially after such a clear-minded discourse on dating in the modern gay world” Should he walk away? And why doesn’t he?
DM: Such a good question. You mean because he seems to have such a clear stance on where and what he sees? And where he stands on dating? And then, he presented with something that kind of goes against his stance. And yet, he dives.
Ross: Yeah. And he doesn’t walk away. Even though I think the whole audience is–
DM: Right. Well, I’ll start by answering that question for me as David. What I love about Darius, and what I’ve loved about this process, is that I feel like it’s really been a you-plus situation, which I think is the best situation to be in as an actor, where you can take your own experiences and your own beliefs and thoughts, and add them into the given circumstances of the play, which is how I personally believe you create a character. And so, I love that. Because it was very easy for me to jump into this circumstances. I, personally, am a single, gay man in the City, navigating modern dating with my own personal beliefs. And what is interesting is, I have found myself like I think Darius finds himself. We’re in this city. And we feel the need to be like, “This is how I live my life. And this is what I will do. And this is what I won’t do. And this is what I wanna do. And this is what I don’t wanna do, specifically with dating.” And I think that Darius has these things set up for him. But then, there’s a little part of us that always wants to be surprised, and always wants to be changed. I think he’s the type of spirit that hopes that life will change him and surprise him with things that he wasn’t expecting. So I think he takes this leap, that we see in that scene, to go against his better judgement, in hopes of reaching a higher point of awareness or experience. So I think the reason he doesn’t walk away, and why I agree that he shouldn’t walk away– at least in hindsight– is that he just wants to experience life. And I think the life he’s currently in feels mundane. It feels like he’s not experiencing what he thought he would experience, especially in a city like New York. And so I think it’s that hopefulness. And it’s the open-hearted spirit that takes him down this path. I think it comes from a really good-natured place of wanting to be fully present, and fully awake, and fully in life.
Ross: What do you think of that, Brandon?
BH: I mean, I think that’s absolutely right. I think that’s why people get tripped up in the kinds of things that they do, because you have to live and learn. Darius comes off as the kind of person who sees other people dating, and sees the world around him, and thinks, “Well, I’m smarter than that. I know not to get tripped up in this” But you don’t know what you would do in a situation until you get there. If you are looking for the “right person,” whatever that is, you don’t know who that is until you’ve been with them, lived with them, breathed with them, done things with them. And so you kind of have to get your hands dirty, you know what I mean? And I guess this is the show where Darius’s hands get dirty, but he learns something from it.
Ross: What is that line of yours? The heart wants..
BH: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”
Ross: Yeah, which is an interesting quote. It’s almost like you say one thing and then you say another right after.
BH: Right. Well, I’m trying to– that was the scene where Josh gets a little carried away and does the Woody Allen/Soon-Yi parallel; finding romance in the place you least expect it.
Ross: People always dive into places that they know they shouldn’t with hope. And dream that they’ll just come out the other end in a better place.
DM: And I think that’s the interesting thing about this show. And I think that that’s why, when you read the synopsis on paper, you’d be like, “Who are you gonna root for? And who is the bad guy?” But I think what’s interesting about the show, and what I’m realizing more and more, as I get the chance and opportunity to perform it, is that no one is the villain, because all three of them, in different ways, are working from a place of help, and a place of constructively trying to build a live worth living. So I think Josh does that in his own way. Alex does that in his own way. And Darius does that in his own way. And they all make mistakes. And they all hurt other people. But that’s life. And they hurt themselves, and it’s this, I think, what keeps audiences engaged and stops it from being a true tragedy or a true melodrama. I mean, all of life is a tragedy in some way– and a comedy– but what stops it from being that is that they’re all working from such an open-hearted place of hope. We watch them trip and mess up, as we all do in life.
Ross: What do you hope people walk away with?
BH: I mean, we always say that communication is the thing that we hope people learn from it. And it’s not something, actually, that the characters really reflect on. It’s just something that they are not so good at doing. And you see them fall on their face.
Ross: At first, I think we all believed that the married couple seem to be really good at communicating.
BH: Yeah, they talk about, “We don’t keep secrets. That’s what makes our marriage work”. But then they do, inadvertently, keep secrets from each other– not in a vindictive way, but because they think it’s not a big deal. They just think, “Oh well, this is a white lie. This is a–“
DM: It’s a non-issue.
BH: Yeah. I hope people do walk away knowing that whatever relationship you’re in, you can make it work. You can define it however you want. That’s what’s cool about this show, is Alex and Josh define their marriage a little differently than a lot of other people do, but as long as you’re constantly making sure that you’re coloring in between the lines that you’ve drawn. As long as you’re honoring that boundary you’ve set, then you totally have a right to have those work for you.
DM: I hope that people walk out the the show with a reminder to take care of the heart. To be careful with other peoples’ hearts. And to be careful with our own. I think we walk around in the dating world where, like Darius says, everything’s so fast. We have so many chances and opportunities to meet Mr. or Mrs. Right. And because of that, and because of that fast pace, we forget that it’s not just us in the equation. But other people are in the dating equation. And in the relationship equation. I hope everyone walks out with a reminder that they should check in with others and their hearts. And check in with our own hearts, because the world moves too fast.
Ross: So tell me about risk? Your character takes risks. How does that work in with taking care of our hearts?
DM: Yeah. I think, to double back to my amazing stage partner, Brandon, it’s communication. And it’s also having empathy. Knowing that just because you don’t feel the same way about a certain person or about a certain situation, doesn’t mean that another person isn’t feeling a different way. And just checking in with them and being able to, at least hypothetically, put yourself in their shoes. And think, “Well, how would I feel if I went through what they went through?” And then act from that place, rather then just react. So often we see a walking-away, or a ghosting. It’s so much easier to say nothing than it is to actually have a tough conversation. But, I mean, who among us hasn’t left a text unanswered? Or cancelled a coffee date because we don’t feel like having that tough conversation?
Ross: There’s one thing I really liked about the play is that there are numerous tough conversations being had. And of course, you need that to keep the plot moving forward. But so many people just stop. And go quiet.
BH: People don’t like being uncomfortable. And who likes being uncomfortable? But people don’t know how to work through it. They don’t understand that when you step outside of your comfort zone, when you start to surround yourself with questions that are unanswered, when you go into territory with a person that you’ve never gone into before, and that can be a really rewarding thing if you work through that with someone. That’s what a relationship is. Going through the next chapter of your life, holding hands with someone, and blazing a trail together. And you have to be able to talk about the uncomfortable thing , and ask, “Well, what does this mean?” Especially if you’re defining what your relationship is. If you’re making your own rules you have to justify, “Well, why?” “Can we sleep with other people? If I can sleep with other people, can I have sleep overs? Can I do repeats? Can I? Why and why not?” You have to be able to have those conversations.
Ross: So two things I’m curious about. Two ingredients in this that I’m wondering what your opinion would be if they weren’t apart of it all. So the first one; if there wasn’t nudity, what would this play be like? And second, I was always curious what this play would be like if there wasn’t a surrogate baby on the way. Could it or would it still be as compelling?
BH: No one’s ever asked either of those questions. It is very interesting. I think without the nudity, the play would lose its sense of intimacy, especially because it starts with nudity, and then we’re clothed for a lot of the rest of the play. But it starts with us having sex. And when you start from a place of sex, then everyone understands, “Okay. We’re really seeing the inside of this relationship. We’re really seeing everything that happens in the bedroom.” So when we talk about sex, the audience is really with us. And I think the nudity really just puts everyone in a place of, “Oh, I’m in the bedroom with these guys.” In a really good way.
DM: Well, if the play kept the same subject matter but didn’t have the nudity. I think that when you have a play that is centered around sex and intimacy, the audience is waiting to talk about that, or hear about that, or “When are we going to get to the nitty-gritty?” But just like you said, because we start with the nudity, I think it makes the ears so much more open to actually hear the story, and find different intricacies, and details that the audience can connect to, past just the initial idea and conversation of sex. It allows, a deeper connection between the audience and the story, and in turn, us and the audience. Because sex is on the table from the beginning. So it’s not this like, “Let’s wait on the edge of our seat until it gets here.” No, we present it from the top. And it’s part of the story just like it’s part of life. The audience gets to really ride in the front seat with us for the rest of the story, because they’re present, because they’re listening. Because they’ve been tuned in from the beginning.
Ross: What about the baby?
BH: The baby. It breaks my heart. It breaks everyone’s heart. Without the baby, you wouldn’t have this reminder– this nagging, “Well, where is our relationship going to go?” That’s the big question, what happens now, after this whole thing we got ourselves into? And the baby just really puts a countdown clock on the whole thing, “you guys are about to become parents. What kind of husbands are we going to be? What kind of fathers are we going to be?” Really makes you think about your relationship in the world, so the baby adds an urgency that I think all relationships have. Because most people that are in a relationship are serious about staying in it. And it just helps us, every single night, remember that, “No, we have to figure this out. Whatever mess we got ourselves in, we need to get ourselves out of it, or figure out how to bring forward whatever is left. Because this baby is on the way. The clock is ticking.”
DM: Part of why Darius makes the plunge, and starts hanging out with them, furthering the relationship with both of them in different ways, and specifically with Josh, is that he admires them. He admires the relationship they have and the life they’re building. So I think if the baby wasn’t there, it wouldn’t be as alluring and as beautiful, and I speak from personal experience– it feels like it’s hard to have kids as a gay man, or it’s more difficult, or it doesn’t happen as often. So I think when you see a gay couple that’s successfully building a family, that for so many years society has told us isn’t possible or shouldn’t be possible, is so, for lack of a better word, cool. And amazing. And I know that I want that. And Darius wants that someday. He wants the chance to build a family. So to get to watch, so closely, these two men that he respects and admires and loves, build this family is such a treat, such a privilege. So I think without that, you’d lose some of that connection that keeps him so invested in watching their relationship unfold but also becoming a part of it.