Thursday, June 18, 2009
NYC: Next Fall
Love With a Proper Atheist and Other Leaps of Faith
Review by Ben Brantley
New York Times, June 4 2009
It’s easy to mistake Geoffrey Naufft’s “Next Fall” for being slighter than it is. Much of this artful, thoughtful and very moving story of a gay couple agonizing over differences in their religious faiths proceeds with the stinging breeziness of a cosmopolitan comedy. You can imagine its concept being pitched to a television producer as a sort of “Will & Grace” with an ontological conscience: He’s a committed Christian, while he’s a committed atheist, and it’s driving their crazy friends even crazier!
But the appealingly acted Naked Angels production that opened Wednesday night at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Sheryl Kaller, is an intellectual stealth bomb. Even as you’re being entertained by the witty talk of ingratiatingly imperfect people, feeling as comfortable as if you were watching your favorite long-running sitcom, big and uneasy questions — really big ones, without answers — are forming in the back of your mind. Don’t expect them to go away when the play is over.
Mr. Nauffts, the artistic director of Naked Angels since 2007 and best known as an actor, has written the kind of gently incisive, naturalistic play that rarely materializes anymore. Topical plays tend to make their characters tote a Big Theme as if they were pack animals, scrunched into awkward postures by the weight of the idea on their backs.
The characters in “Next Fall” — including Adam (Patrick Breen) and Luke (Patrick Heusinger), the odd couple at the play’s center — carry plenty of weight, all right, but it’s the kind generated from inside. Well, mostly. Mr. Nauffts uses the time-honored device of a potentially fatal accident to drag a group of disparate people into confrontations they have been putting off for years.
But Mr. Nauffts leaves these folks the freedom to deal with their shared crisis with all the awkwardness, evasion and denial that allow people to live with themselves, even if such things poison them inside. Life is big, people are small. And Mr. Nauffts takes no shortcuts in working out the intersection of these two données.
The play alternates between scenes set in the waiting room of a New York City hospital, where Luke is in a coma after being hit by a taxi, and vignettes that trace in flashbacks the evolving and sometimes tenuous relationship of Luke, a young actor, and the 40-ish Adam. They meet cute at a dinner party where Luke, working as a waiter, administers the Heimlich maneuver to a choking Adam and move on to a one-night stand that develops into what looks like a permanent thing.
Their big problem isn’t the age difference or the good-looks gap. (Luke is a hottie; Adam, a bit of a nebbish, with more than a touch of the hypochondriacal, fatalistic Woody Allen of “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.”) It’s that Luke, a hard-core Christian from Florida, believes that the man he loves is going to hell. Not for having sex with men, mind you (that’s just sinning and can be forgiven on Judgment Day), but for not believing in Jesus. Questioned by Adam, Luke admits uncomfortably that the killers of Matthew Shepard — the victim of a much-publicized hate crime in 1998 — would go to heaven were they to accept Jesus, while Mr. Shepard would not, unless he too had chosen to believe.
These arguments, which expand to include other characters, never have the stiffness of conscious debate. Everything Luke and Adam say to each other is as rooted in personality as in ideology. And the same is true of everyone else: Luke’s divorced parents, Butch (Cotter Smith), a born-again fundamentalist, and Arlene (Connie Ray), a reformed wild woman of Southern-fried eccentricities; Holly (Maddie Corman), a candle store owner and Adam’s longtime confidante; and Brandon (Sean Dugan), an old pal of Luke’s who won’t accept his friend’s relationship with Adam.
Mr. Nauffts lets his characters brush up against, and occasionally have at, one another in ways that fall into patterns only when you think about them later. The faiths to which each of these people cling come into focus sideways, through the common barter of daily conversation. No one, it seems, is without a religion of some sort, whether it’s Holly’s commitment to self-help groups, Butch’s fierce creationism or even Adam’s ritualistic hypochondria. Religions, with their creeds and rules for behavior, may make life simpler, as Luke insists to Adam. But people are messy, and no one believes in the same way.
Ms. Kaller keeps the play moving fluidly, like one extended and passionate conversation, without too many mood-cuing externals in production design. (Wilson Chin’s set, Jessica Wegener’s costumes and Jeff Croiter’s lighting never call attention to themselves; they’re functional in the best sense.) And the excellent cast members never overplay the flashy idiosyncrasies (which in Ms. Ray’s case would be a definite temptation) but let us register those traits by degrees.
The second act isn’t quite as assured as the first. It includes a couple of monologues that while beautifully written, could be shorter; they feel self-conscious in a way nothing else here does, as if someone decided as an afterthought that certain characters should be allowed to explain themselves formally. But no performer strikes a false note, even when making a topical joke. You never think, “Oh, she would never say that.” (This sort of natural fit of character and words is less common than it should be.)
For the play to work, though, what’s most important is that you believe that despite their essential dissimilarities, Luke and Adam were meant to be together. And you do, thanks in large part to the easygoing chemistry between Mr. Breen’s funny, uptight Adam and Mr. Heusinger’s puppyish Luke. They, like all of us, contain multitudes of contradictions, which in this case somehow manage to click into a shaky but wonderful symbiosis. Love, after all, is every bit as preposterous, subjective and inexplicable as faith itself.
A Naked Angels production at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street (212) 279-4200. Through June 21
WITH: Patrick Breen (Adam), Maddie Corman (Holly), Sean Dugan (Brandon), Patrick Heusinger (Luke), Connie Ray (Arlene) and Cotter Smith (Butch).