Anyone who’s ever felt like an outcast—or who’s ever had a special mentor or teacher whose guidance was essential to making them the person they are today—will likely find much to relate to in Educating Asher, a charming new work from first-time playwright Eytan Deray that is currently premiering at the Wilton Manors venue Empire Stage.
For the play’s protagonist Asher, that teacher was Elliot Weiss, a charismatic theatre-loving gay man who took Asher under his wing after noticing his artistic promise and that Asher’s own burgeoning homosexuality had made him the prime target of vicious schoolyard bullies. Or, as Asher poignantly explains it: “When I had nobody, I had him.”
But after developing a close friendship during their time together at Galaxy Middle School, the two drifted apart as Asher moved on to pursue an acting career and Elliot developed Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, by the time of Elliot’s death, the inciting incident of Educating Asher, the two hadn’t seen each other for nearly five years.
So, when Asher spots an announcement of Elliot’s death in the local paper, he takes it upon himself to go ahead and crash the funeral. But, as Asher is hiding out in the kitchen and wishing desperately for another chance to talk with his lost mentor, who should appear but the man himself, now in ghostly form.
While the conversation that results doesn’t give Asher all the answers, it does give him a chance to find a degree of closure regarding his relationship with his teacher, and also ends up being the catalyst for him to reexamine his traumatic pre-teen years and the impact they may be having on his approach to his relationships today.
Eytan Deray (Photo credits: Carol Kassie)
Though most of the elements that make up Educating Asher are not entirely original ones, Deray has created a relatively original and effective story by combining them in this unique configuration. He is also responsible for the production’s success in more ways than one given that he is also playing the lead role of Asher in the openly autobiographical piece, giving the play its central emotional power with his engaging stage presence and intensely vulnerable performance.
The playwright is joined onstage by Murphy Hayes as the ghost of the hour, Noah Levine as Elliot’s grieving partner Nick, and Michael Harper as Asher’s attractive boyfriend Mark. Guided by the direction of Seth Trucks, all three are similarly well-suited to and affecting in their roles, making for an overall excellent ensemble.
Deray also excels at making his characters’ sexuality an integral part of his play’s landscape without making it an area of undue focus. For instance, he gives us an insightful glance at the different experiences of different generations as Nick’s reminiscing about a time when gay men looking for sexual or romantic partners were relegated to bathhouses and dive bars is contrasted with Asher’s embarrassed admission that he met Mark on hook-up app Grindr. The playwright also pulls no punches when it comes to portraying the brutality of the bullying Asher suffered, the difficulties of coming out amidst familial and cultural disapproval, or the devastating psychological effects of growing up in the shadow of homophobia.
Other particularly moving moments in the play include a speech where Elliot articulates his intense longing to make an impact on his students, as well as those in which Asher and Nick grapple with the effects of Elliot’s Alzheimers, another aspect of the play that will also be sadly relatable to many audience members. Many, too, will also likely resonate with Asher’s bittersweet realization that the questions of “why” that haunt us after a tragedy are in fact questions that are unanswerable, and that eventually we must move on in spite of the unfairness rather than keep seeking an impossible understanding.
Somewhat less engaging, however, was a subplot about Asher’s failing acting career, which was not quite fleshed out enough to feel like anything but an airing of grievances. In fact, Asher’s complaints about being overlooked by the industry was one of quite a few moments in which the character’s struggles to come to terms with his pain and disappointments started to border on unsympathetic self-absorption.
Murphy Hayes, Eytan Deray, Noah Levine (Photo credits: Carol Kassie)
This seems to be related to the fact that Asher is really the only one on stage who emerges as a fully formed character; Mark in particular seemed to be there solely to facilitate Asher’s transformation rather than given any real interiority of his own, and it’s also a little hard to buy that Elliot would be so focused on reconciliation with a former student as opposed to what one would assume would be an array of other pressing post-death concerns.
Centering the play on one particular relationship rather than giving a broader look at Asher’s life when Asher’s emotional journey is clearly the play’s main subject also seems to border on being a structural flaw, in that I can almost imagine a far more interesting and nuanced version of this coming-of-age story if it didn’t have so limited a scope. Some expository and occasionally repetitive “telling” of certain information also perhaps could’ve been better balanced out by more “showing” or deeper exploration into its characters.
But, if anything, my curiosity about these roads not taken are evidence of Deray’s potential rather than marks against the entertainment value of Educating Asher itself. Especially at only 80 minutes, this play certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome long enough for any of its blemishes to become particularly grating, or even necessarily noticeable to those who are not critics tasked with looking for them. The script also incorporates enough humor throughout to keep the evening from getting weighed down by the play’s weighty themes, with the occasional awkward bit of dialogue balanced out by quite a few clever jokes and self-aware asides.
Murphy Hayes, Eytan Deray,