Cancer patients and family members dealing with the Big C let down their hair (and occasionally their guard) at a bar called After Hours in E.M. Hodge’s aptly named After Hours, now getting its World Premiere at Theatre 68.  Like Michael Christofer’s The Shadow Box, Hodge’s dramedy finds considerable laughter amongst the inevitable tears, and under Paul McGee’s assured direction, marks a promising full-length debut for the playwright.

Elise Hodge is Nola, a 30something volunteer in the cancer ward of a hospital we imagine to be just down the street from After Hours, a woman who does as much of her caretaking after hours as she does during her work day. Among the lives Nola touches are those of John B (Daniel Hutchison), the bar’s 50ish owner, widowed following his wife’s suicide; Riley (Bob Moran), After Hour’s boyish young bartender, only recently reunited with the cancer-battling dad who abandoned him at age twelve; Georgie (Ed Dyer), a great big palooka of a guy whose wife Sally has just gone into hospice; Lana (Shannon McManus), dealing with the imminent death of a sister she’s had a love-hate relationship with for most of her life (with an emphasis on the latter); and Duncan (Siaka Massaquoi), whose young son is finally getting to go home after being declared in remission…and whose wife wants a divorce.

Taking place in about ninety minutes of real time, After Hours quickly involves its audience in each of its characters’ lives and in their personal relationships with each other, romantic and otherwise. Riley is clearly more than just infatuated with Nola, though the older woman refuses to see their sexual relationship as anything other than physical. Duncan and Lana are likewise clearly made for each other, if only he can get past his reliance on R-rated sex talk and she can let down the guard she’s probably been putting up all her life. Georgie’s undying love for his soul mate Sally serves as a model for both of the abovementioned couples, as John B watches over them all with fatherly affection and ample shots of whiskey.

Playwright Hodges has written roles which allow her cast to shine, beginning with her own excellent work as Nola, feisty and frightened and needy and defiant. Dyer’s richly textured Georgie is so blue-collar, you forget it’s an actor up there onstage. Massaquoi is a romantic leading man with depth, Moran brings a youthful vitality to Riley, and silver fox Hutchison presides over the whole affair with paternal warmth. Best of all is McManus, whose thoroughly natural performance reveals the depth of Lana’s mixed emotions even as the conflicted young woman insists on keeping them hidden.

Lighting designer extraordinaire Matt Richter shares credit with director McGee in making full use of the production’s rather barebones set—on the left a bar counter and stools with some neon beer ads behind, and on the right an open-air terrace—by focusing our attention on whosever scene it is as other characters continue talking or dancing or going about their business.

As a midweek offering, After Hours is clearly a low-budget labor of love. No one gets credit for set, sound, or costume design, but all are more than adequate for a Wednesday/Thursday show. Rachel Staman does get program credit for her work as lighting and sound board operator and Hutchison for set construction.  After Hours is produced by Ronnie Marmo.

Like Cristofer’s Pulitzer and Tony-winning The Shadow Box, After Hours is far from the downer you might expect a play about cancer to be. Sprinkled throughout with humor and filled with love, it entertains and compels in equal measure.

Note: Partial proceeds from all ticket sales will go to benefit cancer research and support groups.

Theatre 68, 5419 West Sunset Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
December 14, 2011

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