Christopher Shinn’s play Now or Later debuted at the Royal Court Theatre in London, two months before Barack Obama was elected president, in the fall of 2008—lending the play’s premiere a very specific timeliness. Shinn’s play takes place on election night and portrays a Democratic candidate as the presumptive president-elect. An abundance of positive reviews made it one of Shinn’s most successful premieres to date.
Fast-forward four years, as the play receives its American premiere Oct. 12–Nov. 10 at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, coinciding once again with the election cycle. Though the concurrence with campaign season was unplanned this time around—director Michael Wilson recommended the play to Huntington artistic director Peter DuBois for a time slot that happened to overlap with Election Day—it has prompted Shinn to consider the ways our national perspective has shifted since 2008.
For one, long before America had a president who supports same-sex marriage, Shinn began writing a play about the tensions between a presidential candidate and his gay son. In Now or Later, John Jr. feels deeply hurt that his father is reluctant to support gay rights and has even forged a public acquaintanceship with a gay-bashing evangelical pastor. Indeed, the play’s critical perspective toward a Democratic candidate may have been out of step with America’s enthusiasm for its new president at the time—one reason, Shinn now reflects, that the play didn’t find a U.S. production immediately after its London run.
“There was a lot of idealization of Barack Obama [in 2008],” Shinn says. “For many people, there was such a relief and excitement about being past the Bush era that the zeitgeist didn’t fit with the kind of play I had written. I think that’s different now. I think people will be able to cast a more critical eye toward a mainstream Democrat.”
In addition to gay rights, Now or Later confronts America’s entanglement with Arab nations. In the play, controversial photos of John Jr. dressed up as Mohammed are leaked on election night, setting off accusations about his—and by association, his father’s—views on Muslims. The play’s incendiary dialogue, while powerful in any year, may move viewers differently now, since the Arab Spring has changed public perceptions of Middle Eastern cultures.
“Will people see it as a history play, or a play that is still fundamentally about today and this moment?” Shinn wonders. “I’m very curious to see which of the two will be the dominant audience response in Boston.”