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As Barack Obama and John McCain duke it out during their second presidential debate Tuesday night, Londoners will be enjoying a different kind of American political drama. “Now or Later,” New York playwright Christopher Shinn’s latest work, which opened at the Royal Court theater in September, imagines a Democratic candidate in the midst of a public relations nightmare: as he is about to be named president, grainy photos of his 20-year-old son attending a wild college party — dressed as the prophet Mohammed, no less — start to emerge on the Internet.
The intense, 80-minute play is set entirely in the hotel room of the president-elect’s son, John — played by Eddie Redmayne — who’s holed up there along with the rest of the politician’s camp. As the TV broadcasts the election results, the campaign anxiously awaits for the incriminating photos to migrate from blogs to major news outlets. Advisers attempt to convince John to issue a public apology, anticipating the images’ effect on the U.S.’s relations with Muslim countries. But John resists, arguing his costume was a protest against what he sees as his fellow libertine students’ hypocritical defense of Islamic fundamentalists.
Shinn, who hails from Hartford, Conn., says he was drawn to examine the great and the good in his latest work, which he began to write 18 months ago. “I’m particularly interested in narcissism and powerful people — in ancient Greece and in Shakespeare’s time, they were writing about kings and queens, but in our time we focus on regular, middle-class and working-class people,” says Shinn over the phone from his New York home. “I thought, ‘Let me pretend I’m an ancient Greek playwright and write about the powerful people who lead the world.’”
Shinn, 33, admits he looked at the lives of “children of the powerful” when researching the play, adding the Internet has changed the rules for political families. “People forget that there wasn’t even YouTube in 2004,” he says. “The ease of uploading videos and images has transformed what people can expect from privacy — regular people as well as powerful people.”
Indeed, the play parallels the predicament of vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, whose pregnancy — and forthcoming marriage — were hastily revealed by the Republican party earlier this year, before bloggers’ versions of the news could take hold. “It was interesting, as in that situation the daughter was forced to agree to managing the pregnancy in a way that was politically useful,” says Shinn. “Whether it was a willing agreement or the daughter was forced, she ultimately toed the party line.” Shinn adds that when writing the play, he was also aware of Prince Harry’s gaffe, when he was snapped at a costume party in 2005 dressed in a Nazi uniform. “It was fascinating to see the p.r. effort that went into that response,” says Shinn. (The prince, via Clarence House, issued a public apology.)
While Shinn’s play has received critical acclaim during its London run, the playwright says American producers weren’t so keen to stage the work. “There was a surprising degree of reluctance to do the play [in the U.S.],” says Shinn, whose previous projects include “On the Mountain,” which premiered at New York’s Playwright Horizons in 2005, and “Dying City,” which looks at the lives of a young actor and his twin brother, a soldier who died in Iraq. “I can only speculate,” Shinn continues, “but I have the feeling that in America, everyone is so sick of Bush that they don’t want to think about a Democrat [president] facing problems.”