Stop me if you know this already: The big, bad media traffic in tragedy. One day, your personal horror story is a source of private anguish; the next day, you're babbling to Nancy Grace. The literary agents come knocking and the bookers and producers send flowers and --
Oh, you'd heard?
Yeah, I guess just about everybody has. So where does that leave a ticketholder for "After Ashley," a comedy about how the big, bad media traffic in tragedy? Holding a ticket to a run-of-the-mill satire. The target in Gina Gionfriddo's play could not be fatter -- or more predictable. With the exception of a fine central performance by a sharp young actor, Mark Sullivan, the Woolly Mammoth production packs all the oomph of last month's news.
Gionfriddo gets off a fusillade of decent one-liners, the stuff of okay sitcoms. In the hands of the right director, you can imagine how some of the more caustic humor might emit a pleasing zest. But the pitch of Lee Mikeska Gardner's staging is off. The tone of hysteria established in the first scene sets the comedy on a ludicrous course and the play never has a chance to recover. Some of Gionfriddo's creepier complications make things worse.
"After Ashley" is one of those works of contemporary social dysfunction in which you're asked to identify with characters whose behavior doesn't come close to believability. Such plays often entail plots in which people have to spend an inordinate amount of time explaining themselves, because otherwise what they do doesn't make sense. In Gionfriddo's play, the subject is the disintegration of the emotional well-being of Sullivan's Justin Hammond after his mother, Ashley (Marni Penning), is raped and murdered in the basement of their house in Bethesda.
Justin's grieving is interrupted by the manipulative adults around him who want to thrust him into the spotlight -- as a result of his frantic call to the police, he's been given a media moniker, the "911 Kid" -- and cash in on the attendant sympathy. His father, Alden (Bruce Nelson), a Washington Post education reporter, has the questionable inspiration of writing a book about his wife (titled "After Ashley"), in which he whitewashes her drug and emotional problems and attempts to cast her as a saint.
In notoriety-crazed America, the dramatist avers, this is a recipe for certain success. Gionfriddo appears to pepper aspects of real events over her story: Ashley's murder, by a homeless man her husband hires to do yard work, bears some similarity to the circumstances of the 1992 Bethesda murder of Laura B. Houghteling. And the slick TV host, played by Paul Morella, who champions Alden and his book on his network crime-victim show, seems to have been inspired at least in part by John Walsh and "America's Most Wanted."
Being corrupted by the limelight is not a groundbreaking theme, but a dig at the national obsession with fame-at-any-cost almost always gets a laugh. And laughs do come when Sullivan is spewing the venom from Justin's hyper-articulate tongue. Justin is an irate adolescent whirlwind, the megaphone for Gionfriddo's own contempt. Suggesting a low ebb had been reached in this country with a widow's effort to copyright the Sept. 11, 2001, fighting words "Let's roll," Justin announces in disgust: "Shame is an idea whose time has come!" The declaration gets an enthusiastic round of applause.
If outrage at the idea of merchandising grief strikes a chord, the emotional underpinnings of "After Ashley" seem overly synthetic. The problems begin with Ashley herself, who is seen in only the play's overlong first scene. As portrayed by Penning, she's terminally immature, a bundle of irritating mannerisms. And the way she burdens her son with her marital complaints and sexual frustrations leaves no room for sympathy for Ashley -- or Justin's loss. Dramatically speaking, her early exit comes as a relief.
Deanna McGovern makes a strong impression as the Florida college girl whom Justin -- apparently just 17 -- hooks up with. And Morella is aptly oily as the rancid talk-show host. But Nelson conveys an oddly distracted air as Justin's dad, and poor Michael Willis tries very hard to preserve his dignity in the preposterous role of a sex fiend. The unmemorable technical aspects, meanwhile, reinforce the feeling that you've been over this sort of material before.
All of the anger that Justin unleashes over the play's 2 1/2 hours comes across as a bad case of petulance. (In the play's absolutely least convincing scene, the vengeful Justin agrees to participate in a sex fiend's amateur porno movie in exchange for an old video of his mother participating in an orgy. Kids!) The magnetic Sullivan, though, radiates intelligence, and his line readings reveal a true knack for comedy. You're happy to see him long after you've had enough of "After Ashley."
After Ashley, by Gina Gionfriddo. Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner. Set, James Kronzer; costumes, Melanie Clark; composer and sound, Michael Kraskin; lighting, Lisa L. Ogonowski. Approximately 2 hours 35 minutes. Through Oct. 9 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net.