When mathematician Bob Goldstein committed suicide by jumping into the Hudson River, he left behind the following short note: “I can’t take it anymore. Take care of the kids. Sell the car.” And that was all he wrote.

Now, three years later, widow Julie, daughter Natalie, son Eric, and family friend Chuck are still trying to deal with the mess he left them when he took his life.

Playwright Elliot Schoenman gives us a day in the life of these four still-ravaged survivors in his riveting new play AfterMath, a family drama in which laughter, anger, and tears are never far from the surface. Skillfully and sensitively directed by Mark L. Taylor, and with a superb cast headed by Annie Potts (truly the proverbial “star of stage, screen, and television”), AfterMath makes for an absorbing, touching, and at times downright hilarious eighty-minutes of original theater.

Brought vibrantly to life by Potts, Queens widow Julie Goldstein inspires such distinctly contrasting emotions from her two adult kids that a simple conversation with her proves impossible to carry on without at least one explosion, and sometimes several, occasionally followed by tears of temporary reconciliation. Natalie and Eric’s rival sibling relationship runss not an iota smoother. Still, make no mistake, the three surviving Goldsteins are inextricably bound by the chains of love.

28-year-old Natalie (Meredith Bishop) is a weathergirl (sorry, make that meteorologist) for a local TV station, an accomplished though insecure young woman whose on-again, off-again relationship with her boyfriend is cause for continuous maternal concern. No wonder the aspiring TV personality is keeping her 50/50 chance of landing a big new job with CNN a secret from Mom.

Dad’s death hit 22-year-old Eric (Daniel Taylor) hard, so much so that he dropped out of college and moved back home, creating a less-than-ideal living situation with a mother he finds constantly on his case. Not surprisingly, Eric too dreams of escape—as far from New York City as the Continental United States can allow him.

As for Chuck (Michael Mantell), the longtime family friend has become the rock Julie clings to, loaning her money, hooking up the air conditioner Eric is too much of a slacker to install, and lawyering to get the insurance company to fork up the benefits Julie would be entitled to—if Bob hadn’t killed himself two weeks before his policy’s no-suicide clause was set to expire.

In less skillful hands than Shoenman’s, Taylor’s and their quartet of stars, AfterMath could easily have become the theatrical equivalent of a bad TV movie, melodramatic, clichéd, and far too pat. Fortunately, all six are gifted stage artists, and what they have created is something which manages to avoid those pitfalls, providing instead a satisfying rollercoaster of an emotional ride.

Shoenman’s writing is clever (“You live, it’s a failed suicide. You die, it’s a success. Talk about fucked up terminology.”), sardonic (“He wasn’t much of a do-it-yourselfer until he decided to do himself in. That he did himself.”), and witty (“If you’re wearing two bluetooth, are you wearing blueteeth?”), and the family dynamics he captures here are ones many if not most in the audience will relate to.

Fans of Potts’ best known role (Mary Jo on TV’s Designing Women) will scarcely recognize the acerbic, exasperating, oddly endearing Queens widow she plays here to brilliant perfection. As Natalie, Bishop once again proves herself one of L.A. theater’s most gifted and gorgeous young leading ladies. Her scenes opposite Potts crackle with the authenticity of a young woman who has spent years loving and loathing an irascible Mom, with an emphasis on the former. As Eric, Taylor gets the kind of standout role that young actors dream of, and plays it with absolute conviction and believability, giving us a son any mother could love—and want to strangle—at times simultaneously. Mantell completes the cast terrifically as the kind of friend every widow would hope to find, and when sexual, romantic sparks begin to ignite between Julie and Chuck, get the fire extinguisher.

Gary Guidinger’s set design gives us a modern, nicely detailed New York apartment, Eric’s appropriately cluttered bedroom contrasting with Julie’s otherwise neatly kept abode. Kathi O’Donohue has done her accustomed fine work in lighting it, with Adam Flemming’s projections a great way to accentuate the NYC setting and also provide us with a look back at Natalie and Eric’s childhoods (with what appear to be growing-up pictures of Bishop and Taylor). Linda Serijan-Fasmer’s costumes are well chosen for each character. Sound design by Bennett Barbakow and original music by Barbakow and Matt George complete the all-around first-rate design package. Brittany Morrison is stage manager, Madeline Keller is production assistant, and Daniel Shoenman dramaturg. AfterMath is produced by Guidinger and Linda Toliver.

An above-the-title Annie Potts would likely prove a guaranteed box-office draw for any 99-seat plan production, but AfterMath offers far more than simply the chance to see a much-loved star up close and personal. A drama which has a great deal to say about love, life, and family, AfterMath makes for a most welcome Guest (Production) at the Odyssey.

Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.
–Steven Stanley
February 27, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

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