“Afterglow,” an off-broadway show by S. Asher Gelman at the Davenport Theatre, represents the latest installment of a recent trend in the past year of productions that specifically focus on the gay male experience, often the urban gay experience. Together shows like “Significant Other” (Joshua Harmon), “DADA WOOF PAPA HOT” (Peter Parnell), and “Straight” (Scott Elmegreen and Drew Fornarola), these all combine to form something of a new gay theatrical canon. This is in response to the older “original” gay Broadway canon–think “The Boys in the Band” (Matt Crowley), “Love! Valor! Compassion!” (Terrence McNally), and “The Normal Heart” (Larry Kramer).
However, what is interesting about the sudden emergence of this new gay theatrical canon, is the parallel trend of revivals of works from the older canon. Recently on Broadway and in London’s West End there have been major revivals of classic gay works like last year’s “Falsettos” (James Lapine and William Finn), the current “Angels in America” (Tony Kushner), and the upcoming “Torch Song Trilogy” (Harvey Fierstein).
So what is the cause of this sudden trend of putting gay issues (both old and new) on Broadway? The current political climate is an easy answer, as is the prevalence of queer people (artists, playwrights, directors, designers, producers, actors, and musicians) in the Broadway community. Whatever the reason, it is great to have these two canons on the stage. Broadway audiences have a larger amount of affluent older people and families from the tristate area, often who are unaware and otherwise uninterested in queer identities, issues, people, and politics. However, when these people go to see a Broadway show like “Falsettos” or “Significant Other” simply because they have been buzzed about and advertised, they will not only be entertained but get a little education on the queer experience.
Although the older gay theatrical canon has always served this purpose, and it is proven that audiences love revivals, the slow creation of a new canon is so important, because it is the new shows that updated to current issues, technologies, situations, and politics. In many ways they are not only more modern but more relatable. The depiction of the AIDS crisis in “The Normal Heart,” “Angels in America,” and “Falsettos” is touching and emotional, but recent and topical issues like same-sex marriage and gay parenting, as seen in “DADA WOOF PAPA HOT” resonate more with today’s audiences.
Enter “Afterglow,” an almost extremely modern gay play that deals with Grindr, open relationships, threesomes, surrogacy, and a potential throuple. Though “Afterglow” is definitively part of this new gay canon and does in fact explore modern gay issues, it is certainly the least successful, significant, and wide-reaching of the bunch. Overall the show is a bit too melodramtic, oversimplified, and erotic to make any claims at having serious commentary on queerness. In addition, the play’s largest flaw is it’s audience of exclusively gay men. Although audience love the show every night, the play’s off-broadway status limits it’s audience size and reach, and therefore no one is going and learning about the gay experience. Audience all may laugh and nod and relate to the characters, but this is not exactly political and important compared to the large audiences of “Significant Other” that had to consider (probably for the first time) how lonely and depressed gay men often are and how exclusionary straight weddings can be. “Afterglow” is not necessarily a bad show, but it’s biggest faults are its lack of nuance and its lack of impact.
Regardless, it is important to support queer theater and to encourage the growth of this new gay canon. Even if “Afterglow” isn’t doing much to educate Broadway audiences, the existence of the show is helping to foster the development of a new canon that, when more widespread, can help teach people about the nuanced experiences of queer people.