Geoffrey Nauffts’ Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Award-nominated Next Fall has arrived at San Diego’s esteemed Diversionary Theatre in an intimate-theater production that actually surpasses its West Coast Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, and that’s indeed saying something considering how powerful that big-bucks staging was.

Next Fall takes the age-old opposites-attract love story and gives it a same-sex twist.

Adam (Matt McGrath) is forty, Luke (Stewart Calhoun) an early 20something. Adam is a hypochondriac and more than a bit of a cynic. Luke views life with a heart full of love and joy. Adam is big city born and raised. Luke is a New York transplant from the Deep South. Adam is an atheist and Luke is a born-again Christian. Adam and Luke have been together for five years now and seem about as committed and loving a couple as can be imagined, despite, or perhaps even because of just how opposite they are.

A twist of fate has brought Adam together with Butch (John Whitley), Luke’s Bible-thumping father, as well as with Luke’s bad-girl-turned-good mother Arlene (Shana Wride), Adam’s boss and gal-pal Holly (Jacque Wilke), and a friend of Luke’s named Brandon (Tony Houck) 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 threatens to force 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 non-Christians 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 it on his sleeve), he resists demonizing his Christian characters, even going so 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.

The Geffen production imported Next Fall’s original Broadway scenic, lighting, and sound designs for a production that only a theater with deep pockets could put on. One of the many miracles Diversionary has wrought down San Diego way is that this small-stage, smaller-bucks production looks and sounds absolutely terrific, with Matt Scott’s ingenious scenic design managing Next Fall’s frequent scene changes quite niftily indeed, complemented by Michelle Caron’s equally impressive lighting design and Kevin Anthenill’s powerful sound design.

Still, the biggest card Diversionary’s Next Fall has up its sleeve is its director, San Diego’s very own, and deservedly revered, James Vasquez, whose original vision of Nauftts’ play will make even those who saw it in New York or Westwood sit up and take notice.

Diversionary scored a casting coup when they signed McGrath, who recently burned up the Old Globe stage as Dr. Frank N. Furter in The Rocky Horror Show, to play Adam. The extraordinarily versatile Broadway, film, and TV vet eschews the flamboyance of Dr. Frank or Cabaret’s Emcee (a role he starred in on Broadway) to enter Adam’s quirky, nerdy shell, investing the character with warmth, sarcasm, bravado, anger, and vulnerability.

Casting coup number two was in seeking out L.A.’s very own Calhoun, whose Scenie-winning Best Performance By A Lead Actor In A Musical star turn in Thrill Me first introduced him to this reviewer. In cater-waiter white shirt and black necktie, the boyish Calhoun could easily be your neighborhood Mormon missionary, making him an ideal fit for Luke, in addition to being a terrific match for McGrath. It’s easy to believe the pair’s initial attraction to each other, and if Nauffts’ script leaves it to the audience to decide why the couple stay together, the love, patience, and grace Calhoun gives Luke go a long way towards making us believe in this match not particularly made in heaven.

Next Fall’s cast of six is completed by the crème de la crème of San Diego actors, and as anyone who’s been to a Diversionary production before can attest to, that’s saying something indeed.

Wride’s folksy, even gawky Arlene is worlds removed from Lesley Ann Warren’s high-heeled glamour gal at the Geffen, a textbook example of how two different actresses, both brilliant, can take the same role and create night-and-day different characters. Wride nails every one of Arlene’s laughs, all the while playing the part with oceans of depth and maternal love. Scenie winner Wilke is sparkly perfection as Holly, the play’s “voice of reason,” whose ability to tell other characters, “Hey, guys, step back a bit,” may have cemented the glue that has kept Adam and Luke’s couplehood so strong despite the two characters’ diametrically opposed religious beliefs. Whitley disappears completely inside Butch’s Marlboro Man skin, yet never allows the character’s machismo to mask his deep paternal love. Houck too vanishes inside Brandon, the Scenie winner’s innate vivacity replaced by the character’s straight-laced tranquility, and makes the scene in which Brandon reveals the reason for the end of a friendship a real stunner.

Prepare to ooh and aah over how Scott’s scenic design morphs into the play’s numerous locales, aided considerably by Caron’s imaginative lighting. Pay attention to the whooshes sound designer Anthenill has created to zoom us backwards and forwards in time before segueing into some particularly well chosen snippets of Katy Perry, Rihanna, and other pop divas. Shirley Pierson’s character-defining costumes are another winner, as are David Medina’s props, particularly those in Adam and Luke’s apartment that must be hidden inside an amusingly overflowing closet when Butch announces a visit.

Beth Gallagher is stage manager, Bret Young producer, and John E. Alexander executive 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. In my review of Next Fall at the Geffen, I wrote that “like Rabbit Hole, it is a play I hope to experience again in production after production.” I feel fortunate indeed that my second visit to Adam and Luke’s world has been via Diversionary Theatre’s world-class production.

Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
February 18, 2012
Photos: Ken Jacques

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