After Natalee Holloway comes ‘After Ashley’

Bad things don’t always happen to good people, but stories about horrific crimes often paint victims with this picture. Woolly Mammoth Theatre exposes this charade in its scathing portrayal of American pop culture, “After Ashley.”

In the hands of director Lee Mikeska Gardner, Gina Gionfriddo’s story comes to life, comically portraying the ridiculousness of making upper-middle-class white females the poster children of violence in America. With just the right combination of wit and wisdom, Gardner deftly establishes the pace of the show in the first scene, and rarely does it falter.

In her satire of post-Sept. 11 America, Gionfriddo displays Hollywood’s sick obsession with abused women. “Dr. Phil.” “Nancy Grace.” “On the Record with Greta van Susteren.” The media has flooded America with updates on kidnappings, rapes and murders – “Nancy Grace” even keeps a daily count of how long it has been since Natalie Holloway went missing. Gionfriddo blasts this pretense to smithereens in “After Ashley,” calling for an end to the media’s mania of turning victims into martyrs.

At the center of the story is 17-year-old Justin Hammond’s (Mark Sullivan) struggle to overcome Hollywood’s attempts to turn his deadbeat mom, Ashley (Marni Penning), into the goddess of abused women. Three years following Ashley’s death, Justin’s father, Alden Hammond (Bruce Nelson), has written a bestseller, the aptly-titled “After Ashley,” and Justin has become known nationwide as the “911 Kid” for a call he made to police the night his mother was raped and murdered in the basement of their Bethesda, Md., home. Once slimy producer David Gavin (Paul Morella) gets a hold of the Hammonds’ story, Justin works endlessly to stop Hollywood from exploiting his mom.

Beneath the zingers and one-liners, the smartness of Justin shines through, thanks to Sullivan’s remarkable grasp on the character. This young actor possesses the comedic timing necessary to make Gionfriddo’s play a testament to the fed-up media connoisseur, used to the bright lights and flash of television journalism. Set designer James Krozner uses the glitz to create one acid trip of a set. Bright neon lights flash on the yellow stage as sound designer Michael Kraskin’s television anthem comes blaring through the speakers. This combination of Las Vegas-caliber color and oppressively cheesy music only enhances the ludicrousness that Justin faces.

Despite excellent casting, acting and staging, “After Ashley” lacks the tightness necessary to sustain the audience throughout the duration of the two-and-a-half hour production. The second act could lose a few scenes, especially one in which Justin has videotaped sex with his girlfriend, Julie (Deanna McGovern), in order to procure a tape that proves his mother’s anything-but-saintly behavior. Gionfriddo makes her brilliant point clear early and does not need to include such unnecessary voyeurism.

Have we reached a soulless, godless time in American life thanks to the media? Gionfriddo puts it best when Justin exclaims, “People are on TV eating bugs . shame is an idea whose time has come.”

“After Ashley” will be at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St., N.W., until Oct. 9. Student tickets are $10 and can be ordered from the theater’s Web site, www.woollymammoth.net.

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