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Has any playwright tackled as much in his first two plays as David Marshall Grant has? Give the man credit for taking a bite out of Big Issues: In Snakebit, his first play and an Off-Broadway hit, he explored sexuality, friendship, and AIDS. In Current Events, his new work at Manhattan Theatre Club's Stage 2, he gets into politics, adoption, and family. All of these topics have the potential to get quite tedious; but fortunately, Grant is as savvy a playwright as he is ambitious. He's also quick on the uptake, funny, and just sarcastic enough to take the edge off (or put the edge on). Current Events proves a powerful, potent drama which confirms Grant's status as a writer to be reckoned with.

Saying Current Events is about politics is, strangely enough, like saying Proof (David Auburn's drama on MTC's Stage 1) is about mathematics--not inaccurate, per se, just a gross oversimplification. It's really a family story, with politics providing its framework: Diana (Christine Ebersole) is a model-turned-mom, though not in the Cindy Crawford mold. She's adopted Ethan (John Gallagher, Jr.), who's now 15 and self-actualized enough to make statements like, "Who knows? Maybe I'm gay." He's quit the basketball team (since he's disillusioned with competitive sports), and has just logged Day Nine on his hunger strike (a sociopolitical statement, naturally). He also wants some answers about his real parents, and he's counting on his uncle Adam (Jon Tenney)--a California politician on the fast track to Washington--to provide them. Adam has just blown in to the family's Connecticut home for a pre-Christmas visit with two cell phones, a fax machine, and a Prada-loafered personal assistant (Jeremy Hollingworth) in tow. Likely to be hanging around is Danny (Seth Kirschner), Ethan's questionably gay pal. And presiding over the brood is Grandma (Barbara Barrie), Adlai Stevenson's staunchest supporter.

Here's a bit of background: The family used to live in New York City, where Ethan attended the Dalton School and hung with a group of fast-living, Page Six-making boys (the kind who might have inspired that recent New York Times piece about 12- and 14-year-olds who take limos to dimly-lit nightclubs and experiment with oral sex in the corners). No wonder he feels stifled in the suburbs. Diana is no happier to be living in Connecticut ("People get up at six o'clock in the morning here and feel refreshed!" she marvels, disgustedly). But Adam couldn't handle the publicity or the expense, so he relocated his relatives. If you're wondering why Adam is so concerned with the child's upbringing, you won't be surprised to learn that he's more than just an overinvolved uncle: He's actually Ethan's father. (The audience realizes this early on, and the only person who doesn't know it from the start is Ethan.)

The drive in the drama comes from the fact that all these people are milling around the same family room (Derek McLane's wonderfully detailed set, dotted with remnants of the '70s--an orange sofa--and touches of the '90s, like a copy of A Man in Full). Much to her son's consternation, Diana lacks that organized mother gene: She forgets kids in carpools and her cookies come out dry. The ambiguously gay assistant proves interested in more than just the candidate. And Adam is pretty liberal by conventional standards--for gay marriages, he notes proudly--but not by Grandma's standards. (This, after all, is a woman who begins bedtime stories with, "Once upon a time, there was a dictator named Pincohet...") To win his election, he'll need to sell out--and he'll sell a lot more than anyone expected.

A collapse and a mysterious envelope are both ho-hum twists which Grant seems too smart for; but toward the end there's a lovely, wonderful stage kiss that comes practically out of nowhere and compensates for any previously-seen predictability.

Under the direction of David Petrarca, the fine cast clashes and burns brilliantly: Jon Tenney walks the walk and spouts the spin of a politician--and has the good looks that's carried many a candidate to victory. The ever-youthful Barbara Barrie is every bit Tenney's match. Even confined to a wheelchair, as her character is here (a refreshingly never-addressed condition), Grandma is even more passionate than Adam, and that's no small feat. Few do funny and frazzled quite like Christine Ebersole; and though she usually doesn't get the chance to go deep, she takes this dramatic ball and runs with it. Jeremy Hollingworth is sweet and understated as Adam's lackey, and Seth Kirschner adorable as Ethan's inquisitive buddy. As for John Gallagher, Jr., his performance as Ethan is the best I've ever seen from a young actor. His character is the heart, soul, and drive behind this production: He rebels, he questions, he grows; he wrestles with just about every issue the playwright throws at him. In Current Events, there's a lot resting on his narrow shoulders. And, lucky for David Marshall Grant, Gallagher is up to the challenge.


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