June 6, 2009

How "Next Fall" Made a Believer Out of Me

In all honesty, Next Fall, the new play that opened this week at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, didn’t sound promising. First there is the title, the kind of bland, generic label that tells you absolutely nothing about the play. Then there is its confused marketing campaign which bounces between cutesy man-on-the street quotes about what people are planning to do next fall and a serious effort to position the play as a gay rights manifesto.

My theatergoing buddy Bill and I went to see it anyway. In part because it had been a while since we’d seen anything together. In part because the play is produced by Naked Angels, the theater cooperative that has spawned such terrific works in the past as Warren Leight’s Side Man and Jon Robin Baitz’s The Substance of Fire. And I'm happy to report that our going to see Next Fall turned out to be a very smart decision. Because it is one of the best new plays of the year.

Like so many contemporary plays, Next Fall is a drama about a dysfunctional family. Like far too few, it stretches out to encompass issues that are roiling the larger society. Lots of them. Like sexuality, love, friendship and faith.

The play opens in a hospital waiting room where family and friends have anxiously gathered after a car accident has put Luke, an aspiring actor and an evangelical Christian, into a coma. Flashbacks reveal Luke’s relationship with each of them, particularly with his lover Adam, a steadfast non-believer. Although they are committed to one another and live together, Luke believes that his sleeping with a man is a sin and the couple quarrel regularly over his inability to come out to his equally pious parents.

This is thought-provoking stuff. But playwright Geoffrey Nauffts, who is also the artistic director of Naked Angels, doesn’t forget that people come to the theater to be entertained as much as informed. Philosophical arguments are made but good jokes are also cracked—and the humor comes from who the characters are and isn’t just sugar coating slapped on to make the serious debate more palatable.

Some critics have been skeptical that such people could actually exist. They ask whether a fundamentalist Christian would live openly with his male lover. If an atheist could love such a fervent believer. And what would such a young hunk see in such a nebbishy older guy. Perhaps the situation doesn’t seem so unlikely to me because I have a good friend who is currently wrestling with many of these same issues. But I also buy it because Nauffts has created characters who come across as real human beings—sometimes annoying, sometimes endearing, just as we all are.

Most tellingly, his religious characters aren’t the usual one-note yokels who play the villains in so much of secular culture. Even the sanctimonious father, perhaps too pointedly named Butch, is a nuanced character, particularly as brought to life by Cotter Smith. In fact, the entire cast is pitch perfect and director Sheryl Kaller, aided by Wilson Chin’s versatile set and Jeff Croiter’s smart lighting, keeps the action flowing as smoothly as can be done in the theater’s intimate space.

But what I liked best is that Nauffts refuses to settle for easy answers to the difficult questions he poses. The Far Right has held serious discussion about faith hostage for over 20 years now and this play is seeking to free it. You don’t have to be a believer to appreciate that. You don’t have to be or even know someone gay to be moved by this play. But if you believe in smart and meaningful theater, you just should make an effort to see Next Fall. Fortunately, its run has just been extended through July 5.


Vance said...

Oh good! I'm seeing it next week but I had decided to go based purely on shallow reasons (Gossip Girl's Heusinger! and always liked Breen).

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Vance, any reason is a good reason to go to the theater. Would love to know what you thought of the show. Albest, jan