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Geoffrey Nauffts jumps ahead to ‘Next Fall’

Noodles may be flung. At the Geffen Playhouse, actors Geoffrey Nauffts and Betsy Brandt are rehearsing a tense hospital scene in “Next Fall.” A box of Chinese takeout — not to mention tempers — is about to fly. Director Sheryl Kaller isn’t sure they can make the noodle bit work. It will be Nauffts’ call in the end; after all, he wrote the play.

After a successful 2010 Broadway run featuring Patrick Breen in the role, Nauffts is finally playing Adam, a character suspiciously close to Nauffts’ own personality, in the West Coast premiere of his Tony-nominated drama. No wonder he’s so good at it. “Geoffrey has an amazing exuberance on stage,” says James Wolk, who plays Adam’s significant other, Luke. “It’s great to play off his energy. And when we have a question about the text, the writer’s right here.”

Set in New York, “Next Fall” elegantly combines romantic comedy, hospital room melodrama and hot-button issues (homosexuality, religion) into an intimate study of love and belief. Fortysomething worrier Adam falls for Luke, a young Southerner from a fundamentalist background. Luke believes in Jesus Christ; Adam puts his faith in Truman Capote and a bottle of good Merlot. The play moves back and forth in time between their five-year relationship and a long night in an emergency room that brings everyone’s values into stark relief.

The production also features Lesley Ann Warren, Jeff Fahey, Ken Barnett and Brandt, known for her role as the kleptomaniac wife of DEA agent Hank Schrader on the AMC Series “Breaking Bad.”

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“‘Next Fall’ is about family,” says Kaller, who has been with the play since its earliest readings at New York’s Naked Angels theater company in 2007. “How we show up for each other, even through crises and disappointments.”

“Next Fall” is Nauffts’ first full-length play after several decades of acting and directing that began with one line in a community theater production of “Oklahoma!” (Nauffts’ father played Curly) and led to roles on Broadway, including “Biloxi Blues” and “A Few Good Men.”

Early in the play’s development, Nauffts considered playing Adam. But he got good advice from Naked Angels’ then-artistic director Jenny Gersten. “She said, ‘Just be the writer. It’ll be better for the play.’” Nauffts admits there were times during the New York production when he wanted to “jump up there and play.” And now that he has? “I see why some of the difficult moments to play are difficult,” he says wryly. “Time to consider rewrites.”

In the play, Adam struggles with the fact that Luke has not told his religious father about his sexual orientation — a secret that can destroy one relationship if it’s kept, another if it’s revealed. Nauffts knew he was gay from an early age but says he tried “to sort of will it away. When I was growing up there were no images to hold on to. No ‘Will & Grace,’ no Tim Gunn. I didn’t broach the subject with my family until I fell in love with another man.”

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While Nauffts acknowledges that today’s “Glee"-ful culture has become more accepting, he believes “the actual moment of telling someone is still scary. The other day I was watching a YouTube video of a soldier coming out over the phone to his father. It was incredibly moving.” Nauffts will explore similar themes in his next project, an HBO movie called “81 Words,” the story of the American Psychiatric Assn.'s 1973 decision to remove homosexuality from its definition of sexual deviance.

“Next Fall’s” themes of acceptance are as personal as they are political. “It’s practically a documentary,” Breen jokes. “Geoffrey once said to me, ‘Adam’s religion isn’t atheism, it’s hypochondria.’ And that’s Geoffrey. He’s convinced he’s coming down with the next fatal illness.”

Sitting down with a glass of wine after rehearsal, Nauffts admits he’s a fearful person. “I do envy Luke’s sense of belief. His peace. There’s an unsettled quality I carry around. A fear of the unknown, of the thing you can’t control. A big part of the play is Adam learning how to believe in the here and now.”

Hence the play’s allusion to “Our Town.” Luke lands the Stage Manager role in the Thornton Wilder play. Nauffts smiles. “Emily’s speech about people not realizing how wonderful life is as they’re living it has always resonated with me.”

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That sense of urgency is shared by Nauffts’ collaborators. Kaller says her approach to “Next Fall” is influenced by the early deaths of her parents. “Both my parents died in the twinkling of an eye. Directing this play has so much to do with being in the moment. Don’t put off for next fall what you can do today. I try to live that every day.”

The accolades don’t hurt, Nauffts says, but the greatest tribute has been the audiences. “In New York, people would take the long way home so they could keep talking about it.” Breen remembers families crowding around outside the stage door after the show. “It was incredible. Adult gay children with their parents. Straight couples. All saying thank you. It seems to be a play that fosters dialogue.”

Nauffts continues to work on the script during rehearsals at the Geffen. “He’s still tweaking,” says Kaller. “Like all good actors, he knows how to listen. And from that he’s able to improve the storytelling. Just honing these characters, making them very real people.”

Including Adam. “You can’t ask for a juicier role,” Breen says. “It’s a ride on the Cyclone. You go through a five-year relationship with someone you love in the space of two hours. You say funny things and sad things happen. It’s the role of a lifetime.” Breen laughs. “And it’s partly selfish on my part. Geoff is such a fantastic actor. I just want to see him do it.”

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