Friday, March 12, 2010

Next Fall (Helen Hayes Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Last year’s Naked Angels production at Playwrights Horizons of Geoffrey Nauffts’ cannily written love story about a Born Again Christian and a diehard atheist, has been transferred to Broadway where it remains an absorbing, moving and often even humorous experience.

"Next Fall" opens in a hospital waiting room as mother Arlene (Connie Ray), and friends Holly (Maddie Corman) and Brandon (Sean Dugan) anxiously await news of Luke (Patrick Heusinger) who, we learn, is lying in a coma.

Joining the anxious trio are Luke’s Tallahassee-based father Butch (Cotter Smith, not unlike George W. Bush, in manner and appearance) and Luke’s live-in partner Adam (Patrick Breen). The circumstances leading to Luke’s head injury, and the relationships among the characters come out over the course of the play. It’s not immediately clear, for instance, whether Arlene or divorced husband Butch know that Adam is their son’s lover.

In any case, Adam is excluded from the patient’s room, as Butch makes clear it is for “family only,” much as Colin Firth was excluded from his deceased lover’s funeral in “A Single Man.”)

Scenic designer Wilson Chin’s hospital setting soon morphs into a Manhattan rooftop party and the first meeting of Adam, who’s 40 and sells candles in Holly’s shop, and aspiring actor Luke. Thereafter the play flips back and forth between the hospital and the apartment Luke and Adam come to share, unbeknownst to Luke’s parents.

When Butch comes to visit, Luke takes frantically comic pains to “de-gay” the apartment, and begs Adam to vacate the premises before his father arrives. Adam insists Luke inform Butch about their true relationship, but Luke wants to put it off till “next fall.’

Of course, as fate would have it, Luke is out when Butch arrives, making for an awkward encounter between Butch and Adam. Though Adam never states his relationship to Luke, there’s a priceless knowing exchange between them when Adam serves Butch tea. “Honey?” he asks. “I’ll take mine straight,” is Butch’s firm reply.

Luke’s born again views rankle the non-believing Adam who challenges Luke on “sinning” in bed one moment and then devoutly saying his prayers the next. Adam forces Luke into an admission that hate-crime victim Matthew Shepherd’s killers might be saved, whereas Shepherd himself might not, if they, merely “accept Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior.”

Much of the easy audience laughs comes from Adam’s snide jibes against belief in the bible stories and an afterlife, while Luke’s parents do seem bigoted, narrow-minded, Darwin-debunking, and are, in many respects, markedly far from the Christian ideal. But Nauffts takes pains to avoid caricature.

In any case, even as Breen’s Adam is getting those knowing guffaws, it is Heusinger’s irresistibly likable Luke who earns the audience empathy in his tussles with the crotchety, hypochondriac Adam. Luke’s heartfelt plea that Adam believe so they can remain together in the afterlife is most touching, even as Adam whines, “I want you to love me more than Him.”

But though sometimes Nauffts seems to be taking cheap shots at religion, late developments in the narrative provide a satisfying balance. It turns out that the necessity of belief, in its myriad forms, is actually Nauffts’ central theme.

The delightful Corman has some wonderfully comic lines as her character serves as a constant mediator between the disparate factions. As for her own beliefs, she reveals at one point that she’s from a family of “big old Catholics.”

Ray’s sassy Arlene gets laughs, too, in the first act as she rambles on about her beloved pet Chihuahua, but her poignant discussion with Adam in the second, as they bond in the hospital’s Jewish chapel, is gorgeously written and acted. Dugan shines in a lengthy scene with Breen as Adam probes Brandon’s peculiarly individual spin on the contradictions of religion and his personal lifestyle. And Smith’s buttoned-up father has a heart-breaking beautifully acted and staged climactic moment.

Nauffts’ writing is funny, sensitive, and consistently surprising, only rarely sounding a bit stagey. Sheryl Kaller directs the play’s ever-shifting tone and tricky themes with pitch-perfect sensitivity.

(The Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th Street, (212) 239-6200 or Print this post


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