Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Next Fall

Photo/Sara Krulwich

At first glance, Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall looks like your typical Broadway drama. A tasteful shot of reddening leaves is swept up above the stage, revealing a stark waiting room; at the same time, glaring halogen strips sleekly descend from the ceiling. Holly (Maddie Corman) and Brandon (Sean Dugan) sit there in an unearned silence, eliciting the nervous titters of an audience that doesn't know what to expect, especially as Holly finally points out the obvious weirdness of it all. To further break the ice, a ceaselessly talkative old belle named Arlene (Connie Ray) enters, allowing us comic exposition like "I'm so glad they took him to a Jewish hospital." There's even a stereotypical man's man--straight down to his name, Butch (Cotter Smith)--whose portrayal of anger is so familiar that we all but miss the fact that he's raging out the rest of the plot. His son, Luke, has been hit by a taxi cab--"I'll sue the whole damn city if I have to"--and the surgeons won't let him, his ex-wife Arlene,  Luke's friends (Holly and Brandon), or Adam--a stranger, at this point--into the recovery room.

In fact, most of this first act is typical--even the smooth flashbacks that establish the relationship between Luke (Patrick Heusinger) and the older, hypochondriac Adam (Patrick Breen). The biggest twist is not that Luke is gay, or that he hasn't yet told his parents ("Next fall," he keeps promising); rather, it is that Luke is a Christian and Adam is a pompous, liberal atheist--a writer, to add fuel to the fire--and he can't help but put down the lunacy of religion every time he opens his mouth. These arguments are overly familiar, too, and they're pointless--the sort of stuff that conservatives can rightly shake their fists at. A through-line of sweetness and internal conflict--Heusinger's excellent portrayal of Luke--keeps us watching, though, and Naufft's writing--sharpened on the television show Brothers & Sisters--is just comedic and dramatic enough to keep us watching, though nothing special or particularly clever.

But by the far better second act, Luke's condition has worsened, and that's led much of the small talk and sparring to be dispensed with. Likewise, the flashbacks have progressed beyond the establishing "honeymoon" phase, in which appearances are still everything, and reached a more intimate, searching place, in which Luke and Adam are both at odds trying to reconcile their own religious impasse. The best scenes in the play, and--lately--on Broadway, are late night conversations in which Luke comes close to convincing Adam to accept Jesus and in which Adam honestly admits that he--greedily, but also understandably--needs Luke to love him more than God. The success of these moments stems not from the writing, but from the sincerity of the emotion. Here, at last, Naufft abandons the back-and-forth and allows his characters to inelegantly fumble around, attempting to find words and then--failing that--managing to express their feelings through raw emotions or needful gestures. After all, faith and conviction--the two sides of religion and logic--cannot ever be resolved in open debate. Distilled into the naked language of compromising lovers, however, this debate thrives, for it is no longer fought with mere words.

Naufft takes a few more liberties at the end of the play--a moment of rage for Adam that seems forced (not by him, but by the circumstances) and of catharsis for Butch, but chances are, the tears in your eyes will cloud them. And though some of his plotting still comes across as contrived--Butch deciding to drop in on what he believes to be Luke's "bachelor" pad, only to run into Adam; a scene in which Brandon explains what being a gay Christian means--Naufft makes it work. (The Butch scene adds a bit of farce; the Brandon scene puts much more weight behind Luke's unspoken choices: "He moved the line for you.") Given just how far the play comes (though it could've ended a few minutes earlier), it's hard to go back and criticize faults that are only seen in retrospect. Far better to just admit that Next Fall is an entertaining play that ends up being much more than mere entertainment.

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