Regional Reviews: St. Louis
There are many things to like about Next Fall, the most important of which is that it allows an able cast of actors to do dig below the surface of their characters and let us see nuanced acting which grapples with real and complex human situations. On the other hand, unless you are a fan of television dramedies (as an actor Nauffts has appeared in many television series, a fact which seems to have informed his writing), you may find the play's glibness, reliance on stereotypes and fondness for improbabilities more than a little off-putting.
For instance: it's pushing it to have a character appear in Our Town in order to give the other characters a chance to comment on the theme of not appreciating life as you live it. It's beyond the pale to expect us to believe that a would-be professional writer would not be aware that The Stage Manager is a character in that play (although of course it makes for a good gag line). Similarly, there are Jews everywhere, even in Florida, so the recurring ignorance of one of the characters regarding the most ordinary facts of Jewish life seems more like a means to easy laughs than anything organic to the character.
Next Fall centers on the relationship between two gay men, the neurotic Woody Allen type Adam (Jeffrey Kuhn) and the handsome actor-waiter Luke (Colin Hanlon). The Biblical names are no accident because the Big Theme of the play is the conflict between Luke's embrace of traditional Christianity (no particular branch is mentioned, but it's one which condemns homosexuality) and his identity as a gay man. Although most of the scenes between the two actors are wonderfully natural, their religious discussions are less than convincing and the deck is entirely stacked against the Christian viewpoint as the playwright indulges himself writing clever put-down lines for Adam and his friend Holly (Marnye Young) while giving no such writerly support to Luke's point of view.
The precipitating event of Next Fall is an automobile accident (signalled by offstage sounds at the play's opening) which leaves Luke in a coma. His parents and friends have gathered in the hospital awaiting news of his condition, and the play alternates scenes in the hospital with flashbacks to Luke and Adam's life together. This is a popular approach to screenwriting but I'm not sure it works as well on stage because it deprives the audience of something which only theatre can provide: the chance to see, before our very eyes, characters growing and changing and working through their problems in real time.
Part of how Luke has dealt with his conflict is by remaining in the closet to his family so that they don't know who Adam is to him (or at least they keep up a pretense of not knowing). Luke's mother Arlene (Susan Greenhill) appears at first to be a ditz who thinks Chihuahuas come from Puerto Rico and proudly broadcasts her opinion that Jews make good doctors and accountants. She later proves to be more of a steel magnolia, trading one stereotype for another (and is also saddled with an unnecessary drug problem by the playwright) but it's a credit to Greenhill's talents as an actor that she is able to get past the stereotypes and show us a complex woman dealing with a difficult situation. Luke's father Butch (Keith Jochim) is written as an even more stereotypical good ol' boy, but Jochim also manages to create depth in a role which could easily have been played as one-dimensional. I particularly like the way he handles a scene in which Butch sets boundaries with his son through a line which uses both an ethnic slur and a rude word for a gay man which could have been used simply to underline the character's unthinking bigotry but in Jochim's performance communicates the message "don't tell me what I don't want to hear."
Six characters is a large cast for a new play and Nauffts makes sure each adds something to the work. Ben Nordstrom has a crucial role as Brandon, a devout Christian and former lover of Luke who was displaced by Adam and is more comfortable discussing his status as a dinge queen than he is his faith. Holly has more to say and do on stage but is also confined to a more stereotypical role as a fag hag who has seemingly tried every spirituality and personal growth experience on the planet (yoga, chanting, meditationno wonder she manages a candle shop!) except the kind provided by established religion. Both characters act as important foils to the Luke/Adam relationship and to Luke's relations with his family.
The technical aspects of Next Fall are first rate with particular kudos going to Brian Sidney Bembridge's scenic design, which uses two basic setups: A convex semi-circular wall provides the backdrop for the hospital waiting room, a city park and a restaurant (the latter two using projections of leaves and the New York skyline, respectively, to great effect) and a second set represents Adam and Luke's improbably spacious apartment (another television convention, this one based on the need to have room for the cameras and sound equipment).
Scene changes are fast and efficient (a necessity in a play composed of many short scenes), with the exception of one incident on opening night in which the sets were still moving when the lights came up. I'm not sure what to make of the Ten Commandments banner bearing the first ten letters of the Hebrew alphabetmaybe that's supposed to convince us that Luke is being treated in a Jewish hospital. The sound design features the kind of unobtrusive acoustic music often heard on indy film soundtracks these days and effectively sets the mood of the play.
The Rep Studio production of Next Fall will continue at the Grandel Theatre through November 14. Ticket information is available at www.repstl.org/patronservices/box_office_ticketing/ and 314-968-4925.