Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 11, 2010
Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts. Directed by Sheryl Kaller. Scenic design by Wilson Chin. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Jeff Croiter. Original music and sound design by John Gromada. Cast: Patrick Breen, Maddie Corman, Sean Dugan, Patrick Heusinger, Connie Ray, Cotter Smith.
As for the outward, gentler one, Nauffts and director Sheryl Kaller would have you think it's the pursuit of tolerance, at least as relates to the relationship at the show's center. Luke (Patrick Heusinger), an evangelical Christian, has just been admitted to a hospital following a taxi accident, and is in bad shape - and getting worse. His lover of five years, the atheist Adam (Patrick Breen), is still trying to come to terms with what Luke's devotion means - and he may be running out of time. Through a series of flashbacks, we see the romance and arguing that brought them to where they are now.
But that's the plot, not the point. Next Fall is far from even-handed - and farther from even-minded - when it comes to its characters. By way of his dialogue and storytelling, Nauffts treats Luke and anyone else who adheres to any sort of organized religious system with scorn, derision, and often outright distaste. This makes for a precipitously lopsided and utterly inert look at how those of different belief systems can ever coexist on the same planet, to say nothing of within the same apartment.
Let's start with Luke. He's a talented actor but an empty-headed naïf, someone who prays before meals and after sex, who thinks that Matthew Shepard went to hell but the men who killed him will go to Heaven (provided they accept Jesus as their savior), and who defends his concepts of Rapture and the afterlife only with variations on "I just know it's going to happen, you guys. It's kind of hard to explain." His redeeming qualities, per Adam? He's pro-choice and prostem cell research. Dealing with how Luke's abortion stand jibes with his Christianity and the game-changing distinction between embryonic and adult stem cell science that's always been at that debate's center would bring greater clarity to both Luke and his faith, but Nauffts gives neither a legitimate hearing.
The others are no better. Luke's mom, Arlene (Connie Ray), revels in talking about bull penises, waxing enthusiastic about her incontinent Chihuahua, and spouting Jewish stereotypes. ("They make great doctors.") Butch (Cotter Smith), Luke's dad, is an equal-opportunity intolerant (he hates blacks and gays alike), a Bible-thumper and evolution denier who calls a Newsweek cover story about the discovery of the latest missing link "porn"; and who, like his son, can't articulate his faith, but savages anyone who dissents. Worse still is Brandon (Sean Dugan), also gay and religious, who ended his friendship with Luke because Luke fell in love with Adam, and with homosexuality, love is a line that must never be crossed.
If Nauffts is trying to convey some message other than that Christianity is about exclusion and hate rather than compassion and love, you can't tell from the way he's written Butch and Brandon.
Compare, if you will, the ultra-urbane and wonderfully witty Adam, who mocks every little point of the Bible with absolute authority, confidence, and pizazz, and because of Luke's milquetoast, unsteady nature, is never in danger of being grazed by a retaliatory strike. Or the glitzy fag hag (her term) Holly (Maddie Corman), whose own views are as close as the play gets to ambiguous about anything, but who nonetheless enables Adam's venom in nearly every scene the two share and therefore doesn't come across as an indifferent observer.
Dugan provides the most convincing performance (at least until he confesses his own sins late in Act II), primarily by overacting less than his castmates do. They're content embodying their one-dimensional automatons to the barest degree possible, going after the copious laughs Nauffts has injected but hardly creating a vividly human ensemble. Kaller has not exerted enough force on everyone to help them mine as much truth as possible from their lines; no, the writing doesn't make it easy, but both the director and actors should have gone much further.
The biggest problem, however, is how far Nauffts did go. By treating Luke and his family's views with so little respect and sensitivity, and never providing a hint of a considered defense of what they believe and why, the entire endeavor becomes meaningless. There's no real conflict, no sense of friction between opposing sides - there's nothing for Adam to overcome because the "threat" Luke poses is so vaporous. Luke is a MacGuffin, not a person, more a refugee from a Jack Chick tract than a young man torn between eternity and the here-and-now.
Recently Off-Broadway, Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park and Jonathan Reynolds's Girls in Trouble provided far more inventive and balanced perspectives on hot-button issues, without the sneering that floods so many of Nauffts's scenes. In fact, the atmosphere of the show was brilliantly replicated by one of its producers, Elton John, who asserted in a recent interview that Jesus was gay. Hyperbole, whether of that sort or the kind that heavily stacks the dramatic deck, suggests that for John and Nauffts, the impact of an argument matters more than its substance. But in Next Fall it lands with only a heavy, condescending thud.