The conflicts between fundamentalist Christianity and homosexuality have rarely if ever been as powerfully, personally, or fair-mindedly explored as they are in Next Fall, now getting a West Hollywood revival which, while not reaching the level of excellence a more established 99-seat company might have given it, is worth checking out if only to experience Geoffrey Nauffts’ deeply moving play for the first time since it played the Geffen back in 2011.
The Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Award-nominated Next Fall takes gives the age-old opposites-attract love story a fresh new same-sex twist, introducing us to 40something Adam (Jay Ayers) and his younger boyfriend Luke (Tom Berklund), the former of whom is a big-city hypochondriac and more than a bit of a cynic, the latter a Southern boy who can’t help viewing life with a heart full of love and joy.
Most significantly, Adam is an atheist and Luke a born-again Christian.
Still, despite the couple’s opposing natures and views, their love has proven strong enough to withstand life’s trials, large and small, that is until a screech of brakes brings the older man together with Luke’s good-ol’-boy father Butch (Stephen Mac Howard), his reformed bad-girl mother Arlene (Zachary Barton), Adam’s best gal-pal Holly (Rachel Miles), and Luke’s former best friend Brandon (John Shartzer) in the waiting room of a Manhattan hospital ICU.
Next Fall then takes us back and forth from present to past and back again as we get to know Adam and Luke from their rooftop meet-cute through the years leading up to Butch’s unexpected visit to their shared Chelsea flat, one which threatens to force Adam out of their apartment and back (however temporarily) into the closet.
Complicating matters for the couple is Luke’s profound belief that only born-again Christians will be spending eternity in Heaven, leaving everyone else to burn in Eternal Damnation (and that includes Adam, who not surprisingly has a problem with a God who’d be so exclusionary, let alone deem his love for Luke an abomination), and it is to playwright Naufft’s credit that his shades-of-gray characters are neither demonized nor put on a pedestal.
Performances at the Macha Theatre range from good to excellent under Robin Long’s for the most part astute direction.
Attorney-turned-thespian Ayers shows leading man promise as Adam and has believable chemistry with his onstage romantic partner. Still, the highly demanding role would be better served by a more experienced actor.
As Luke, Broadway triple-threat Berklund’s GQ looks and Men’s Fitness physique are matched by some terrific acting chops and an innate likeability that portends even bigger things ahead for the out actor.
Stage and screen vets Barton and Howard both do standout work, the former all Southern sugar and spice and sass (with some down-home wisdom thrown in for good measure), the latter’s bombast and bigotry tempered by a paternal love that may ultimately know no bounds.
Smokey-voiced Miles excels too as the best gal pal any gay man could possibly ask for, and Shartzer shines throughout, particularly when revealing the horribly conflicted soul beneath Brandon’s enigmatic surface.
Where Next Fall falls short, especially in comparison with competing 99-seat plan productions, is in its scenic and lighting design. Jim Fry’s set, while adequate and even stylish in hospital waiting room sequences, requires far too many long drawn-out changes. (More times than not, a simple shift in lighting focus could have taken the place of a whole lot of furniture moving.) And speaking of lighting (Curt Stahl is the designer), without a pair of dramatic fades to absolute black, both Acts One and Two end with a fizzle rather than a bang.
On a far more positive note, Daniel Tator’s expert sound design and Haim Mazar, Matt Walker, and Yaron Spiwak’s mood-setting original music add to the play’s dramatic impact. Costumes are uncredited but just right for each character, with special snaps for Luke’s biceps-revealing tank tops.
Next Fall is produced by Spewak and Walker. Adrian Tafoya is stage manager. Ori Kalmus understudies the role of Luke.
Ultimately, although Treehouse Productions’ maiden effort lacks the polish a more established company could have provided Geoffrey Nauftt’s compelling, touching, thought-provoking play, I don’t regret the chance it gave me to revisit Next Fall this spring.
Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood.
May 12, 2106
Photos: Zeke Ruelas
(Note: Rehearsal photos do not reflect actual scenic design)