I wrote the following review in 2010. I’m resurrecting today (10/10/20) because Play-PerView is presenting a tenth anniversary reunion reading of it this evening, with the same cast.
The easiest thing to say about “Next Fall,” a play by Geoffrey Nauffts that debuted in 2009 at Playwrights Horizon and is now being “presented” on Broadway by Elton John and his life partner David Furnish, is that it is a moving, amusing and thoughtful evening at the theater.
It is more difficult to label the play, to call it a comedy or a melodrama or a love story or a gay play or a drama about religious faith. It is all these things and not precisely any of them, a modest play on its surface with degrees of depth hinted at by the several possible meanings of its title.
“Next Fall” begins in a New York City hospital where friends and family gather after Luke, an actor in his thirties (Patrick Heusinger, best known from TV’s “Gossip Girl”), was injured in a taxi accident and has fallen into a coma. We meet his divorced parents, who have travelled from Florida, and eventually his lover Adam, a man in his forties (Patrick Breen of Off-Broadway’s “Fuddy Meers” and Broadway’s “Big River”).
It is clear right away that Luke’s parents and his lover don’t know each other; Luke never told his (bigoted) parents about Adam.
The fluorescent ceiling lights of the hospital retract, some walls move, and it is five years earlier, on a rooftop with a nighttime view of the skyline, where Adam and Luke have just met: They have escaped a party where Luke executed the Heimlich maneuver on a choking Adam. (“You looked so cute all doubled over like that,” Luke tells Adam, joshing banter that becomes the norm.) Luke is working as a cater waiter, but has just been cast in a production of “Our Town.” Adam wants to be a writer but has worked for the past six years in the candle shop owned by his friend Holly.
The rest of the play alternates between scenes in the hospital and scenes moving forward through the years of the two men’s unlikely relationship – unlikely not primarily because of the difference in their ages or types (Luke is an openly friendly hunk, Adam a sardonic intellectual nerd) but because Adam is an atheist and Luke is a committed, and apparently fundamentalist, Christian. From the beginning, Adam is relentless in attacking Luke for subscribing to a theology that dismisses gay relationships as sinful. Luke argues that all human beings sin, that having sex with men “just happens to be mine,” but that his sin, as all sins, will be forgiven because he has accepted Christ as his savior.
Adam: So then, if Matthew Shepard hadn’t accepted Christ before he died, he’s in hell, and his killers who, say, have, are going to heaven? Is that what you’re saying?
Luke: Can we change the subject?
It is a credit to the script, though, that Adam doesn’t score all the points, that Luke’s faith is shown to have value. Indeed, each of the characters in his or her own way has some kind of spiritual life, whether on a journey or confidently arrived. These are not just pat mouthpieces for their positions. At a vulnerable moment, Adam confesses “you don’t have to believe in hell to walk around feeling like you’re going to burn in it.”
It seems largely on the strength of its positive Off-Broadway reviews last summer that “Next Fall” first extended its limited run several times and now has transferred with no discernible changes (other than a larger set) to the Helen Hayes.
But there were critical dissenters then, and on theater chat rooms now, who find the characters sketchy or stereotypical, or question the credibility of some of the play’s details, for example how two people who work in a candle shop could afford an apartment in Manhattan that Luke’s father on a visit describes as “swanky” (Maybe their parents are helping them with the rent?); more significantly, how two people with such sharply conflicting core beliefs could stay together so long (Love finds a way?)
One can also detect a certain coyness in the play about Judaism. The hospital is a Jewish hospital (there is a scene in the hospital chapel that makes this clear), Luke’s mother Arlene makes some silly (but not really anti-Semitic) comments about Jews. Yet, while Adam might as well have “Made by Woody Allen” printed on his chin — aspiring writer; hypochondriac; politically-minded, CNN-watching, wise-cracking Upper West Sider – we are apparently supposed to believe (based on one throwaway line) that he grew up in a non-religious but Christian-heritage household. Not impossible, but not typical. (Maybe playwright Nauffts didn’t want his play overwhelmed by Bridget-Loves-Bernie issues.)
What makes any such gaps trivial is the acting. Nauffts, the artistic director of Naked Angels, the theater company where “Next Fall” originated, is also an actor who has appeared in dozens of films and TV shows. He and director Sheryl Kaller have assembled a cast of six first-rate actors (brought intact from the Off-Broadway production) and given them a chance not just to express emotions fully and believably, but to bring out those feelings in the audience as well – and that includes both tears and laughter.
Of special note are Patrick Breen as Adam, who seems to have been destined to play this role, and Connie Ray as the overly talkative pill-popping Arlene, Luke’s post-responsible mother, who makes a potential sitcom joke into a believable woman through her expertly modulated performance. Singling out these two is not intended as a disparagement of the other four, all of whom have stand-out moments that are touching or tickling, and feel true. The playfully affectionate scenes between Luke and Adam, as performed by the two Patricks, go a long way to establishing a reality in their relationship, and making it appealing.
Producers need to be brave to bring almost any play to Broadway these days. What the producers needed for “Next Fall,” a play without music or stars but one that contemplates the heavens, was something close to faith. Faith is largely what “Next Fall” is about.
Next Fall. by Geoffrey Nauffts At the Helen Hayes Theater (240 West 44th Street) Directed by Sheryl Kaller Sets by Wilson Chin, lighting by Jeff Croiter, sound by John Gromada, costumes by Jess Goldstein Cast: Patrick Breen as Adam Maddie Corman as Holly Sean Dugan as Brandon Patrick Heusinger as Luke Connie Ray as Arlene Cotter Smith as Butch Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission Ticket prices: Normal range: $81.50 – $116.50. Student rush: $26.50. Premium top price: $226.50