Nauffts has admitted to having a fascination with religion and the polarization it creates, leading him to question and explore how two people from different worlds can co-exist. The relationship he puts under his microscope is homosexual in nature, pretty high up on the Christian list of sins. It poses a challenge for Luke, a devout Christian, to explain to Adam, a non-believer, how he is able to reconcile his beliefs with his gay, albeit closeted, lifestyle, and try to entice his partner to see the light. Throughout their five years together, it is this irreconcilable dichotomy that defines who they are as individuals and repeatedly threatens their bond.
Next Fall is an intelligent play with great depth which covers a range of serious topics while maintaining a wonderful sense of humor. The dialogue is peppered with comic banter and scathing one-liners, not merely for the sake of getting laughs, but to further character development and mirror real-life encounters. Nauffts draws three-dimensional characters that may be warm and affectionate to each other one minute, and stomping off in frustration the next. The ambiguity in Luke's life and the conflict it creates in his relationship with Adam induce the audience to examine their own beliefs in the context of the play.
Act one begins in the waiting room of a Manhattan hospital as three seemingly unconnected characters chit chat. It quickly unfolds that they are all there for Luke who has been hit by a car and gravely injured. Holly (Adam's close friend) and Brandon (whose purpose is disclosed later) share a nodding acquaintance, while Luke's mother Arlene has just arrived from out of state. Their light conversation barely masks their concern and discomfort with each other as the situation develops. Luke's father Butch emerges from an inner office spouting angrily about hospital staff, clearly sublimating his fear by going on the offensive.
Interspersing a series of flashbacks with the present, the playwright gradually reveals details of how Luke and Adam meet, fall in love, and move in together. While Nauffts handles the introduction of the former's faith in a low-key manner, treating it like any discovery lovers make about each other at their first breakfast following the night before, the actors make it an indelible moment with Dan Roach (Luke) physically shrinking back from Will McGarrahan's (Adam) incredulous, pointed probing. It is the first of many compelling moments between the two who share a convincing rapport as the star-crossed lovers.
McGarrahan gives a tour de force performance, inhabiting every corner of Adam's psyche. He is a bundle of insecurities, worrying about everything from bed creases on his face to feeling fat to not being where he thinks he should be in life at the age of forty. When Adam reluctantly lets himself tumble into the relationship with Luke, McGarrahan's spot-on tentative actions portray his character's mixed feelings. His joy with his newfound love is palpable, as is his anxiety when he faces the dire, post-accident circumstances. Adam's arc requires the actor to grow, both up and inwardly, and McGarrahan nails it in the final scenes.
Roach has less time (owing to the fact that Luke is offstage in a coma during most of the hospital scenes) to make an impact, but he strongly depicts Luke's key characteristic of absolute certainty in his faith. It is as natural to him as breathing, so it presents a quandary for him as he deepens the relationship with Adam. Roach lets us see that struggle, yet does not waver from his character's core belief. He remains engaging and likeable, never giving the audience a reason to question Adam's attraction.
Luke's parents appear somewhat stereotypical at first: Arlene (Amelia Broome) as a flaky, southern scatterbrain, and Butch (Robert Walsh), as befits his name, as a controlling, bigoted bully. However, the two accomplished actors seamlessly take their characters to deeper places when the twists and turns of the story challenge our assumptions about them. In more peripheral and less developed roles, Kevin Kaine (Brandon) and Deb Martin (Holly) both perform with sincerity. Brandon and Adam have one pivotal scene together which explains his place in Luke's life, but his presence until that point is a gnawing question mark. Holly is the all-around fag hag and guy's gal who offers support and comfort to Adam, but has few defining facets other than her Catholic upbringing. Nauffts might consider enhancing these two buddy roles.
Norton and IRNE Award-winning Director Scott Edmiston elicits fully realized performances from the ensemble, and is especially adept at showcasing the internal lives of the characters. In a play with very little action, he draws us into the small, claustrophobic world that they inhabit as they await news that is literally about life and death. As if on cue, the audience relaxes and laughs, or collectively goes silent in the most dramatic moments of the play. Edmiston follows Nauffts' road map which does not provide every direction down to the minutest of details. For example, we know that Luke is not out to his parents and they question Adam's being there at the hospital. As things develop, we wonder if they knew about Luke and Adam all along, if they chose to deny it, and did it really matter? In the end, Nauffts lets the audience decide for themselves and makes it a richer experience.
Janie E. Howland's set design is efficient, using center stage as both the waiting room, furnished with a sofa, coffee table and numerous chairs, and Luke and Adam's apartment. It is appropriate as the former, but rather bland as the latter, although it is spiced up by a skyline view through the wooden window blinds. Alcoves flanking the stage are concealed by sliding curtains which open to reveal the exposed brick foyer of the couple's flat and the hospital chapel on one side, and the rooftop where they first meet and Luke in his hospital bed on the other. Karen Perlow subtly changes the lighting from soft to stark as the scenes alternate between the apartment and the hospital. Costumes by Carlos Aguilar reflect the down-to-earth nature of the characters, with Adam appearing a bit rumpled, and only Brandon dressed in business fashion. Original music and sound design by Dewey Dellay are satisfactory.
Nauffts shows himself to be both thoughtful and thorough in Next Fall, his first full-length play. I love his dialogue and the way he gives each of the major characters a moment of crisis that does not always seem obvious. There is no shortage of conflict throughout, but he also inserts frequent references to Thornton Wilder's Our Town to evoke its theme of life being precious and short. Nauffts challenges his characters to figure out how that philosophy should inform their lives and, ultimately, challenges the audience as well.
Next Fall performances through October 15 at SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre in the Stanford Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street in Boston's South End; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com. Written by Geoffrey Nauffts, Directed by Scott Edmiston, Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, Costume Design by Carlos Aguilar, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, Original Music & Sound Design by Dewey Dellay; Production Stage Manager, Amy Weissenstein.
Cast: Deb Martin, Kevin Kaine, Amelia Broome, Robert Walsh, Will McGarrahan, Dan Roach