Rarely has the romantic axiom that “Opposites attract” proven more true than for the couple at the heart of Geoffrey Nauffts’ Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Award-nominated Next Fall, now getting a powerful, beautifully acted West Coast Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse.

A is forty, L an early 20something. A is a hypochondriac and more than a bit of a cynic. L views life with a heart full of love and joy. A is big city born and raised. L is a New York transplant from the Deep South. A is an atheist and L is a born-again Christian. A and L have been together for five years now and seem about as committed and loving a couple as can be imagined. And entirely opposite in all ways but one—gender. You see, A and L are Adam and Luke and they are two men in love. Deeply in love. Despite, or perhaps even because of just how opposite they are.

A twist of fate has brought Adam together with Butch, Luke’s Bible-thumping father, as well as with Luke’s bad-girl-turned-good mother Arlene and a friend of Luke’s named Brandon in a locale not to be revealed here. Next Fall takes us back and forth from present to past and back again to present as we get to know Adam and Luke from their meet-cute to their moving in preparations to Luke’s father’s unexpected visit, one which forces Adam out of their apartment and back (however temporarily) into the closet.

Along the way, we see just how many obstacles the couple have had to overcome on their path to happiness, primarily those revolving around Luke’s profound belief that only those who have professed Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior will get to spend eternity in Heaven, leaving the other two-thirds to burn in Eternal Damnation (and that includes Adam, who naturally has a problem with a God who’d be so exclusionary, let alone categorize his love for Luke and their ways of expressing that love an abomination).

If Next Fall sounds like a “message play,” I must admit that in less deft hands than Nauffts’, it might well be that and nothing but that, and there are in fact serious issues that get discussed or argued about. Still, Nauffts makes his characters so real and three-dimensional that they defy stereotyping and cliché. Though the playwright may ultimately reveal his iconoclastic heart (if not wear on his sleeve), he resists demonizing his Christian characters, even going to far as to make Luke the more sympathetic of the two lovers. Next Fall might even prove that illusive play that LGBTs can actually invite their more closed-minded friends, acquaintances, and family members to.

Though there are comedic moments sprinkled throughout, be forewarned. Next Fall is a tear-jerker, albeit a highly intelligent, classy one. So have Kleenex handy, because if you fail to be moved, you probably need to have your heart examined.

Next Fall looks and sounds great, the Geffen having imported its original Broadway scenic, lighting, and sound designs for its West Coast Premiere. (More about that later.) Its original off-Broadway/Broadway director, Tony nominee Sheryl Kaller, is on board here too, a savvy decision as Kaller clearly knows, understands, and respects Nauffts’ characters, even its most conservative and/or judgmental. And New York-based playwright Nauffts, who is first and foremost an actor, now gets to play Adam, a role that fits him like a glove and that he plays to perfection.

Still, major kudos go to the Geffen for not having gone the “East Coast Casting” route for the remaining characters, whose shoes are filled to perfection by some of L.A.’s best (and in at least one case best known) talents.

Besides being as drop dead gorgeous as any gay man (or straight woman) could wish for in a romantic partner, James Wolk proves himself every bit as talented an actor as he is handsome. Wolk’s Luke has such an inner radiance that even the most diehard of atheists might understand how Adam could fall—and stay—head over heels in love with him, regardless of how outrageous his beliefs might seem to the ears of a nonbeliever. That Nauffts and Wolk have terrific romantic chemistry is an added plus.

Jeff Fahey is the quintessential Marlboro Man as Luke’s father Butch (the name fits him to a T), and is so forceful a presence that it’s no wonder Luke has postponed (and postponed and postponed) Coming Out To Dad, regardless of how openly he lives his life in the Big Apple. Betsy Brandt is simply marvelous as Adam and Luke’s quirky best friend Holly, and Ken Barnett is so believable as the tightly-wound, straight-laced Brandon that you forget it is an actor up there onstage. Finally, there is the incandescent, ageless Lesley Ann Warren, a star since her teen years, doing some of her most powerful work ever as Luke’s mother Arlene. (And she looks like a million bucks as well!)

Wilson Chin’s scenic design is not only a visual stunner but a marvel of ingenuity. Kate Bergh’s costumes do just what costumes ought to do; they clue us in to just who Nauffts’ characters are are even before they open their mouths. Jeff Croiter’s lighting does much to enhance the mood of each scene, just as do John Gromada’s sound design and original music.

James T. McDermott is production stage manager, Jennifer Brienen assistant stage manager, and Phyllis Shuringa casting director.

Like Rabbit Hole, Next Fall deals with deadly serious topics without resorting to Lifetime TV clichés. Like the David Lindsay-Abaire Pulitzer Prize winner, it manages to entertain (if I dare use that word) even as you feel your heart being broken. Like Rabbit Hole, it is a play I hope to experience again in production after production. I am so very glad that I got to discover Next Fall this fall at the Geffen.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
November 3, 2011
Photos: Michael Lamont

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