(Possible spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned).
There has been much hype surrounding Geoffrey Nauffts’ play Next Fall, which has become something of a critical darling in a rather ho-hum season for new plays. The play, about the contentious romantic relationship between two gay men – one Christian, one atheist/agnostic. The play literally starts with a bang – a car crash to be specific, which places one half of the couple in a coma. In a style reminiscent of Diana Son’s Stop-Kiss, the narrative unfolds in a series of scenes that switch between the present and past, alternatively unraveling the precarious and unlikely nature of the relationship.
But ultimately, Next Fall fails to deliver on its promise of profundity. Instead the audience is subjected to a lackluster play that is half sitcom, half melodrama (complete with expected hospital waiting room histrionics). The characters don’t fare much better: they lack complexity and ultimately become ciphers, allowing the playwright to get on his soapbox. There is some shading to Adam and Luke, but everyone on the periphery is flatly written. Dad is a redneck fundamentalist Christian, mom a bizarre reformed free-spirit addicted to painkillers, and there’s the obligatory Grace Adler-esque best friend. Then there’s the ex-boyfriend, but more on him later.
The relationship between Adam and Luke is represented in a perfunctory fashion. Adam is a high-strung, neurotic New York mess (think Woody Allen minus the wit). Luke is presented as a pure, naive Christian, well-meaning and ignorant. Luke’s parents are presented as narrow-minded, stereotypes of conservative Christianity. In relying on these cultural stereotypes, Nauffts’ gives himself an outlet for his worldview, but doesn’t offer anything compelling or revelatory in the process.
The strident, snarky Adam is both irritating and aggravating because of his insensitivity and unyielding narcissism. There were certain questions he asked Luke which had credence, but that was undermined by his total lack of compassion, especially in the scene where he asks Luke to love him more than God. Perhaps it’s just me, but if you really love someone you accept them for who they are, and it seemed as though Adam never did. I wanted to paraphrase The Sound of Music for them – just because Luke loves God doesn’t mean he loves Adam less. For someone who demands acceptance from others, Adam is very unwilling to offer it himself.
It’s to the play’s disservice that Luke is written and portrayed in such a simpleminded way. There’s an infinitely more interesting play to be written when the two characters are intellectual equals, or last on an even playing field. There was no one there to represent the middle-ground where ultimately most of the people I know tend to fall. One particular idea that is completely missing from the discussion are those who believe in God, or some other higher power, but not in organized religion (and there are many out there who do).
Breen does what he can with Adam’s uptight persona, but is mostly monotonous. Heusinger has similar troubles with Luke, but managed to get my sympathy (I tend to root for the underdog in a situation). Connie Ray and Cotter Smith are strong performers in search of strong material as Luke’s parents Arlene and Butch (why don’t you just hit us over the head with a hammer) but fail to register. Maddie Corman is a pretty, talented actress with charm and comic sensibility, but she seems more interesting than the character she is playing. The role of Brandon, Luke’s ex-boyfriend is cripplingly underdeveloped and given a stultifying portrayal by Sean Dugan. Even after Brandon’s big scene in the second act, there is very little to warrant his presence in the play.
Ultimately, Luke dies of his injuries at the end of the play leading into a sober denouement in which the characters slowly disperse. But after 2 1/2 hours of watching him vilified by his lover for his beliefs, it felt more like the playwright was sacrificing the character because of his faith. A first-time playwright, Nauffts needed more time to workshop and shape his text. What we are left with are talking points that are never molded into anything definitive, dialogue that wouldn’t pass muster in a second-rate sitcom and the vague outlines of character. When the houselights came up, I was left with a decidedly autumnal chill.