To believe or not to believe.
It’s a quandary at the heart of “Next Fall,” Geoffrey Nauffts’ compassionate exploration of faith that has made a smooth transfer from off-Broadway to the big time of Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre.
The play, which had a successful run last summer at Playwrights Horizon’s small theater, is something of a risk on Broadway today. No stars. A playwright who’s not well-known, although he has extensive acting credits and is artistic director of the theater company, Naked Angels. Don’t let the lack of celebrity deter you. “Next Fall” is expertly cast, enormously entertaining and even laugh-filled despite the underlying seriousness of its subject matter.
This battle over religious beliefs is played out against the backdrop of a hospital drama where a comatose young man fights for his life. That grim prognosis hovers over the story, which is told in flashback. It’s the tale of Adam and Luke (could the names be more Biblical?), partners whose relationship has been upended by a traffic accident in which Luke has been seriously injured.
As family and friends gather, the two men’s history is told in bits and pieces. How they meet. How they move in together. And how their relationship starts to fray as Adam begins to question Luke’s fundamentalist beliefs and his unwillingness to tell his family that he is gay.
Director Sheryl Kaller carefully balances the hospital scenes with the more intimate moments when the two men define and dissect what they believe or, more importantly, what they don’t believe. Particularly the underachieving and constantly complaining Adam, who has never had much of a career. He is a quivering, quirky mass of neuroses, and Patrick Breen captures the man’s every twitch.
Luke, a would-be actor, is more outwardly laid back and secure in his religion, but anxiety bubbles close to the surface, especially in terms of publicly declaring his sexuality. Patrick Heuslnger exudes an easygoing Southern charm, a likeability that masks, up to a point, his definite views of religion.
Family plays an important part in “Next Fall,” most empathetically Luke’s divorced parents: his rigid, conservative father (Cotter Smith) and his talkative, cheerfully scatterbrained mother (an ingratiating Connie Ray).
Yet friends are memorably portrayed, too. The sardonic, supportive Holly, brought to life in a wry understated performance by Maddie Corman. And Brandon, a gay man whose own moral straitjacket is as tightly tied as Luke’s. In one of the evening’s best written- and compelling acted- scenes, Brandon explains his own strict moral beliefs. Sean Dugan pulls it off masterfully, calmly explaining his thoughts to a perplexed, more than dubious Adam.
One of the pleasures of “Next Fall” is Nauffts’ evenhandedness in presenting both sides of an issue. The playwright doesn’t preach or try to tell his compelling story only in black and white. He invests the play with a generosity that doesn’t prejudge. Nauffts embraces both the virtues and foibles of his characters. And that inclusion makes “Next Fall” an even richer experience.
Geoffrey Nauffts' play "Next Fall" covers at least two of this spring's theater trends: It centers on gay men, and it uses a jumbled timeline to tell the story.
The show often drifts toward movie-of-the-week goodwill, but, then, movies of the week are rarely as charming and as humbly moving as "Next Fall."
The Naked Angels production had a successful run at Playwrights Horizons last year. Thanks in no small part to Elton John's patronage, it reopened on Broadway last night, cast and staging (by Sheryl Kaller) intact.
The play has lost some of its intimacy in the transfer, and the characters sometimes look lost on Wilson Chin's cheap-looking set -- especially in the scenes set in a hospital waiting room.
That's where they all gather to sit by Luke (Patrick Heusinger), who's in a coma after being hit by a cab. His parents, Butch (Cotter Smith) and Arlene (Connie Ray), are estranged but flew in from Florida. Holly (Maddie Corman), Luke's boss at a candle shop, waits, too.
And then there's Adam (Patrick Breen). He's the boyfriend -- though Butch and Arlene don't know that detail.
Nauffts alternates hospital scenes and flashbacks that recount the two men's sweet-and-sour romance. Adam embodies the sour: An acerbic New Yorker fluent in Old Woody Allenese, he's baffled by Luke's deep-felt religious beliefs. When Luke tries one more time to talk him into accepting faith, Adam shoots back, "Why would I need Jesus to save me when you already did?"
Together, they try to figure out how to bridge this fault line, as Nauffts gently prompts us to wonder how we live with contradictions, and what we're willing to sacrifice for love. Too bad the show is hampered by supporting characters out of central casting: Arlene is a rowdy steel magnolia, and Butch is the strong, silent type. Holly's the loyal straight best friend always ready with a quip and a shoulder to cry on.
Only Luke's pal Brandon (Sean Dugan), another gay Christian, pulls us in, maybe because he's intriguingly opaque. When he explains that "urges" are acceptable but a "lifestyle" isn't, he gets under our skin.
And yet Nauffts doesn't judge Brandon. He's just not that kind of writer, and "Next Fall" isn't that kind of show.
A flourishing member of a precious and nearly extinct species has been sighted on Broadway, looking remarkably vital and sure of itself for a creature so often given up for dead. “Next Fall,” which opened Thursday night at the Helen Hayes Theater, is that genuine rara avis, a smart, sensitive and utterly contemporary New York comedy. The question now is whether theatergoers will recognize that “Next Fall” embodies something they’ve been sorely missing, perhaps without knowing it, for years.
Produced off Broadway last summer by the Naked Angels troupe, “Next Fall,” a first play by the actor Geoffrey Nauffts, bravely arrives on the main stem with few of the accoutrements that help ensure success in that neighborhood. True, one of its above-the-title producers, the pop star Elton John, has a famous name. But none of the six cast members do. Nor can this comedy’s immense appeal be summed up in a sexy tag line.
Still, you would hope New Yorkers would be eager to embrace a play that so eloquently celebrates humor as the great urban defense system. Most of the characters in “Next Fall” — which portrays a gay couple wrestling with issues big enough to be called cosmic — are as quick with a quip as the denizens of a zippy sitcom. Yet as portrayed by a wonderfully human cast, directed by Sheryl Kaller, there’s nothing synthetic about them. Their doubts and pain are very real, and the laughter they elicit comes more from the heart than the belly.
There was a time when American plays like this — or at least works that aspired to this level — were as common on Broadway as street lamps. (In recent years popular comedies here have usually arrived with a British passport.) During the 1960s and ’70s Neil Simon scored hit after hit with shows about anxious Manhattanites under siege. But Mr. Simon’s comic style was soon appropriated and mechanized by television, and the perception settled in that it was easier and cheaper to turn on the tube than shell out at the box office. And the mantle of neurotic Manhattan’s poet laureate passed to Woody Allen, whose films offered a hipper variation on the same sensibility.
You can trace elements of both Mr. Simon’s and Mr. Allen’s work in “Next Fall.” Its central figure, Adam (Patrick Breen), is a gravely jokey hypochondriac in the mold of Mr. Allen’s cinematic alter egos. Mr. Breen is also (like Mr. Allen) a nebbishy looking guy. But his natural wit has serious sex appeal, and you’re not surprised that (like Mr. Allen) he winds up with a real babe.
The essential difference is that the babe in this case is a man. And on the surface Luke (Patrick Heusinger) would hardly seem to be the man for Adam. He’s much younger, for one thing, and not nearly as sharp or as literate. But most important Luke is a devout Christian, who sees homosexuality as a sin and nonbelievers as future inhabitants of hell. This understandably perplexes and alarms the agnostic Adam. Yet by the play’s end Adam and Luke will have stuck it out together for more than four years.
This sounds like an easy sitcom set-up, just waiting to have the title “Another Odd Couple” slapped onto it. Yet while it features a host of quotably clever lines, “Next Fall” is no cousin to “Will & Grace.” Mr. Nauffts has a gift for making breezy repartee sound spontaneous, and that’s what first engages us.
But once we’re hooked, “Next Fall” gently pulls us into deeper waters. (Seeing it for the second time I realized how this production sets those depths churning from the beginning, in the silences that exist between the forced, cheery talk.) Suddenly you’re in the middle of a serious work that turns out to have more on its mind than could be found in the collected works of Yasmina Reza, Broadway’s comic playwright du jour.
You could say that “Next Fall” is about religious faith, and how even in everyday life it separates people as much as it unites them. But the play doesn’t wear its theme like a merit badge. Instead it considers how the need to believe in something beyond other people tests relationships — among lovers, friends and family members.
Mr. Nauffts has created a finely graded scale of the forms and degrees of such faith within his cast of characters, all conceived without judgment and much compassion: Adam’s best friend, Holly (Maddie Corman), a single woman with a fondness for gay men; Butch (Cotter Smith), Luke’s fundamentalist, manly father from Florida; Arlene (Connie Ray), Luke’s mother, a reformed wild woman; and Brandon (Sean Dugan), a friend who fell out of Luke’s life when Adam showed up.
In theory the characters line up in camps, with Adam and Holly wryly waving the banner of agnosticism, while the others toe the line of a literal-minded Christianity. But it gradually becomes clear that no one believes in exactly the same way, that, like it or not, religion is as individual and ingrained as a fingerprint. Having brought its characters together in a New York hospital by a serious accident, “Next Fall” alternates between flashback and present-tense scenes to examine those differences and to consider the leaps of faith that any relationship requires.
“Next Fall” has achieved the tricky and necessary feat of retaining its subtlety while increasing its clarity in making the transfer to Broadway. Wilson Chin (sets) and Jeff Croiter (lighting) have scaled up their designs to fill a larger house without strain. Ms. Kaller’s direction is, if anything, more fluid and organic.
The performers, all original cast members, have now moved into their characters as if they had taken lifelong leases on them. They are, to a one, as big as they need they to be, without ever sacrificing complexity. Seen on the deeper stage of the Helen Hayes, they look a little lonelier and more vulnerable than they did off Broadway, which helps to make “Next Fall” the funniest heartbreaker in town.
If a generous spirit and the courage of one's convictions were all it took to craft a great play, then Next Fall (**½ out of four) would be Pulitzer Prize material.
As is, actor/director Geoffrey Nauffts' first outing as a playwright, which opened Thursday at the Helen Hayes Theatre, has collected some ardent and high-profile champions. An off-Broadway run last year garnered rave reviews and was thrice extended, and Fall has since acquired the financial backing of Elton John and his partner, David Furnish.
But many who see the new production — which retains the original director, Sheryl Kaller, and cast, and has been tightened only slightly — are bound to wonder how this heartfelt but pedestrian drama generated so much fuss.
Fall does open with a bang — literally. It's the sound of a car accident that lands a central character in the hospital, in no shape to speak. So we meet Luke (Patrick Heusinger), a handsome but struggling young actor, in flashback, and soon discover that he is both openly gay and a conservative Christian. He's also, ironically, the least conflicted person in this play, for Luke believes that so long as he accepts Jesus Christ as the son of God, all his perceived sins will be forgiven.
By providing Luke with a long-term boyfriend, Adam, who is a confirmed non-believer, Nauffts neatly establishes a central source of friction. Friends and family members arrive at the hospital with their own philosophies and biases, as Falls touches on daunting questions about faith, love and mortality.
Unfortunately, those touches never blossom into meaningful or convincing explorations. The characters are redolent of archetypes and clichés we've encountered too many times before. Adam, a whiny, wisecracking urbanite with hypochondriac tendencies, suggests an early Woody Allen protagonist without the self-effacing charm, and Patrick Breen's monochromatic performance hardly makes him more appealing.
Maddie Corman is at least likable as Adam and Luke's friend/employer Holly, a self-described "fag hag" who chants and does yoga when she's not searching in vain for the perfect man. Connie Ray has some amusing moments as Luke's mom, Arlene, who is introduced as a brassy, bigoted dimwit but naturally reveals a warm heart and a more open mind as the play progresses.
Luke's dad, named — what else? — Butch, is a harder nut to crack, a tough-guy reactionary prone to racist and homophobic slurs. Nauffts and actor Cotter Smith manage, eventually, to show us his underlying humanity. Still, one can't help but wonder if Butch's struggles to deny and then accept his son's lifestyle might have been more compelling if the guy were just a bit less of an obvious bonehead.
Perhaps in his next play, Nauffts will try to craft characters who are as nuanced and authentic as the ideas he's taking on.