There's a reason we praise satire by calling it "sharp." Take "After Ashley." This new play by Gina Gionfriddo, making its Boston debut in a sleek Company One production at the Boston Center for the Arts, is so funny it hurts.
Gionfriddo has an acute eye for the hypocrisies and self-serving platitudes of contemporary American culture, particularly as reflected and magnified in the mass media. She also has a gift for making these foibles funny. But what makes "After Ashley" painful as well as amusing is the hard thinking it forces upon us about how a society can sink so low.
The Ashley of the title is a murder victim, but in the opening scene we see her as simply a person: a slightly flaky, searching person, a woman who says she married too young, no longer feels compatible with her husband, and doesn't know if she should get divorced or have an affair. These musings are complicated by their audience: Ashley's own 14-year-old son, Justin, who reacts with exactly the squeamish denial you'd expect.
Kelly Lawman and Jonathan Orsini make an amusing and persuasive mother-son pair. The scene takes a little too long to get where it's going, but it establishes Ashley and Justin as multidimensional human beings. In contrast, when husband Alden (an appropriately humorless Ed Hoopman) enters, he's such a self-satisfied liberal prig that it's hard to feel much empathy for him.
It gets even harder in scene 2. Three years later, Ashley has been raped and murdered by the homeless nut Alden hired in a fit of do-gooding. Now Alden has written a book, "After Ashley," and he's dragged a furious Justin onto a shameless true-crime talk show to promote it. The show blows up into a hilariously extreme confrontation between father and son, with slimy host David Gavin (played to unctuous perfection by Naheem Garcia) milking every outburst for maximum telegenic potential.
This is where Gionfriddo's gift for satire really shines. Gavin is soon offering Alden a hosting job of his own, with a new show focused on sex crimes and featuring reenactments -- done "tastefully, of course," Gavin says. This from the guy who's already used Justin's 911 call about his mother's murder as the soundtrack for his opening credits.
What lifts this beyond mere sketch comedy is Justin, whose fury and sorrow keep reminding us that these outrages have a human cost. Newcomer Orsini delivers Justin's barbed attacks with flair, but he also paints a believable portrait of a desolate young man.
The balance between satire and sympathy gets more complicated in the second act, which also suffers from some implausible plot twists. Still, we can't help caring about Justin, and Ana Nogueira and Lonnie McAdoo add further layers of interest as a "victim groupie" and a maker of sex tapes who both turn out to have more integrity than those descriptions imply.
But don't worry -- Alden and Gavin have no integrity at all. That may keep them from being entirely believable, but it also gives "After Ashley" its bite. Justin insists on remembering his mother with all her flaws; Alden reduces her to a lapel-ribbon "angel." And Gionfriddo, unsparingly, reminds us just how many Aldens there are.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.