Theater review: ‘Next Fall’ at Geffen Playhouse
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The Geffen Playhouse production of “Next Fall,” Geoffrey Nauffts’ drama about a gay couple with stark religious differences — one’s a fundamentalist Christian, the other’s a sarcastic agnostic — proceeds with the somber discretion of someone walking into church after the sermon has begun. The play has many humorous moments, particularly when urban wisecracks are pitted against redneck ripostes. But an autumnal light bathes even the comic aspects of the work, toning down the banter and subduing the punch lines.
It’s quite a different experience from the play’s amped-up Broadway production, though the director, Sheryl Kaller, is the same. Perhaps the biggest difference is in the portrayal of Adam, a neurotic New Yorker who falls in love with Luke, a sweet, openhearted younger man who silently says grace before every meal and believes his sexuality is a sin.
Nauffts, an actor-turned-playwright, assays this godless role and steers it in a surprisingly low-key direction. (Patrick Breen fueled the play on Broadway by heightening Adam’s high-strung histrionics. Nauffts opts for a more modest portrait of a guy who, no matter how he’s played, is a bit of a self-involved know-it-all.)
The quieter approach draws out the sensitivity of Nauffts’ writing, but the play has a problem that can’t be solved by actor interpretation alone. The essential conflict is only as deep as the characters, and Adam, a substitute teacher, and Luke (James Wolk), an aspiring actor, aren’t especially profound. Their relationship works to the extent that they aren’t the most searching or self-aware people. But what allows them to be relatively happy bedfellows doesn’t make them fascinating representatives of the spiritual-secular divide. “Next Fall” is generally absorbing, often amusing and ultimately touching. It’s just not very enlightening.
The story takes place after a car crash has put Luke in the intensive care unit of a Jewish hospital. (In a play rife with sectarian uneasiness, the religion of the institution isn’t immaterial.) Luke’s divorced parents have flown up from the South in a fluster. Arlene (Lesley Ann Warren), who went AWOL for most of Luke’s childhood, can’t stop her incessant chatter, aware that she must seem “like some kind of hillbilly” to these New York friends of her son. Butch (Jeff Fahey), Luke’s take-charge father from Florida, barrels in with his doctrinaire morality and intolerance.
Already holding vigil in the hospital waiting room are Holly (Betsy Brandt), owner of a candle shop where Luke works, and Brandon (Ken Barnett), an uptight, Bible-clutching gay man who won’t allow himself to love someone of the same sex. By the time Adam (who was out of town at a reunion) arrives, the opposing halves of Luke’s world have been mapped out in neon.
The nub of the drama calls to mind AIDS plays from a generation ago: Butch, who refuses to see that his semi-closeted son is gay, doesn’t recognize Adam’s place in Luke’s life. Only “family” is admitted into the room where he is hooked up to machines, and for Butch, Adam hardly qualifies.
Paralyzed in this moment of crisis, the play flashes back in time to trace the evolution of Adam and Luke’s relationship. We eavesdrop on their contrived hook-up at a party. We are made privy to their squabbles after they move in together. (Adam naturally can’t help starting a row over Luke’s habit of praying for forgiveness after sex.) We watch Luke desperately try to “de-gay” the apartment before his father pays a visit.
The production moves gracefully between the past and the present, thanks to the subtle magic of Wilson Chin’s set, which transforms with minimal shifts from a generic lounge to a cramped Manhattan one-bedroom. Kaller’s direction isn’t especially dynamic, but dramatic pressure is steadily applied.
It’s a capable cast, with Warren’s emotionally clamorous Arlene stealing whatever scene she’s in, Fahey turning Butch into more than just an evangelical brute and Wolk emphasizing both the simplicity and generosity of Luke’s nature. (Brandt and Barnett convincingly flesh out their supporting roles.)
Occasionally, the actors seem to lose track of the urgency of the medical emergency confronting their characters. I have vivid recollections of such a hospital waiting room scene when a friend of mine was in a life-threatening car accident, and his lover was in no state to make quips the way Nauffts’ Adam languidly tosses them off.
Nauffts’ performance at times has that low-impact effect of a songwriter who decides to perform his own hit made famous by another singer. Overfamiliarity with a work can sometimes lead to a lackluster rendering of it. The natural shadings Nauffts supplies are appreciated, but more theatrical potency would have given the production greater momentum.
But all credit to the company for managing to go on with the show after the death of Geffen founder and producing director Gil Cates. This offering, worthwhile despite my reservations, is a reminder of Cates’ commitment to diversity and his understanding of the theater’s role in the unending battle for social justice.
— Charles McNulty
“Next Fall,” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 4. $47 - $77. (310)208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes