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After Ashley

Presented by and at the Vineyard Theatre, 108 E. 15 St., NYC, Feb. 28-April 3. Casting by Cindy Tolan.

So your mother's been murdered. Now what? Gina Gionfriddo's "After Ashley," at the Vineyard Theatre, is a bitterly funny drama of warped lives caught in the clutches of a celebrity-mad, shameless populace thirsty for sensationalism. Although, after an intriguing start, the play's trajectory is downward and wayward, it is filled with snappy, allusive dialogue and brisk though familiar ideas. A 2004 Humana Festival hit, "Ashley" marks the arrival of a more-than-promising talent.

Justin, a sulky, insightful teen (a translucent and haunting Kieran Culkin) is both embarrassed by and loving of his mother. Since Mom is played with life-affirming spirit by Dana Eskelson, it's easy to see why he's not only devastated by her death but also determined to protect an accurate memory of who she was. Eschewing bullshit, Justin can spot phonies a mile away, and that includes his ambitious, bleeding-heart father, Alden, who's written the memoir that shares the title of the play itself.

But Alden, played with a kind of puzzled charm by Tim Hopper, has an uneasy relationship with his son. When the father is snookered into becoming a TV host by the exploitive David (whom Grant Shaud plays with proper sanctimoniousness), he fears that his son will upset the apple cart.

Justin eventually meets Julie (Anna Paquin, in another of her indelibly seductive, loose-limbed portrayals), an English major who beds and abets him in his schemes to save his mother's reputation. They're helped by the despicable Roderick (an oily Mark Rosenthal), whose appearance late in the evening not only seems gratuitous but also stifles the audience's feelings for the young pair.

Terry Kinney's direction is inventive, although no warmer than the play allows. The production benefits from Neil Patel's spare sets, David Lander's lighting, Laura Bauer's costumes, and the original music and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.

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