nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
March 13, 2010
It is appalling that in this day and age, there is no way of communicating to the actors "It's not you, it's the play," as one storms out of the theatre. And so I sat wringing my hands during the final ten minutes of Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall as the characters were tasked with discussing the final ten minutes of Thornton Wilder's Our Town and coming to the jejune conclusion that people just can't appreciate what they have until it's gone. It is not a spoiler to note that this borrowed catharsis takes place in a hospital waiting room just when the waiting has ended and the five pontificating points of view passed off as dramatis personae are about to finally realize that, in the face of death, we are not so very different.
Nauffts, an accomplished actor/director and fledgling playwright, is certainly not without talent. Indeed, depending on how easy you are, this comedy about weighty issues proffers a lot of laughs and some poignancy, and a few instances of each are well earned. But chief among the reasons why playgoers such as myself spend sometimes hundreds of dollars and, dearer to me, hundreds of hours in the theatre each season is the hope that we will hear from an artist with a voice that is singular in its perspective, ambitious in its curiosity, and thorough in its criticism. Or to put it another way, some of us attend the theatre as virgins, demanding from a theatrical experience an intellectual depth and emotional authenticity before we unlock our tender hearts—some still smarting from past manipulations. And for me, Next Fall did not get past first base.
The story, like the ideas it easily contains, is rather simple: a young man has been hit by a cab and his family and friends have gathered at the hospital to have conversations about the relationship between God and gay men. The victim Luke was not out to his family, so when his partner Adam arrives and encounters Luke's Christian fundamentalist dad, subtly named Butch, tension ensues. We learn, via flashback, how religious belief or lack thereof has been a contentious subject for Adam, an agnostic, and Luke, a born-again Christian with benefits. Their domestic conversations—and the conversations amongst the waiting room crew, which also includes Luke's wild-child mother Arlene, Luke's boss at the candle shop Holly, and Luke's non-practicing gay Christian support-buddy Brandon—are completely improbable in terms of their execution, if totally believable in terms of their philosophical trenchancy. However, if a play purports to have something to do with, say, the genuinely intriguing subject of how people with differently-lettered moral laws negotiate a co-existence, one expects its playwright to have a greater erudition of the subject than one might overhear in, say, a Manhattan hospital ICU or a well-appointed apartment in Astoria.
Let me stop here and say what is valuable about seeing Next Fall, directed by Sheryl Kaller, on Broadway. There is, as I have said, a generous helping of sarcastic wit and the audience at the show I attended ate it up. There are some very good performances, particularly Patrick Heusinger, who turns the litely-nuanced role of Luke into an authentically complex young man who is bursting with painful and joyful life. There is a smart and appealing set by Wilson Chin, providing just enough stuff to please the eye and provoke the imagination.
There is also some pleasure in the fact that a play with this potentially subversive subject matter is being produced on Broadway. Certainly, the topics on Geoffrey Nauffts's mind are relevant, but Next Fall does them no justice, and the predominantly liberal-minded patrons can make their way from the Helen Hayes Theatre to their respective dining destinations with all the emotional, intellectual, and political benefits of a slow day at work.