Monday, June 8, 2009

Next Fall


By Geoffrey Naufft. Directed by Sheryl Kaller. Playwrights Horizons. (CLOSED)

For critics who buy into the relationship between the young, attractive, devoutly Christian Luke and the older, unbelieving Adam, Next Fall is an engrossing play that transcends its sticom-y vibe. Other critics find the story implausible, but still applaud the production values, aided by an able cast and appealing design elements.

Time Out New York A+
(Adam Feldman) I don’t remember the last time I saw a gay relationship portrayed with such nuance onstage—a credit to Nauffts’s astute writing, but also to Sheryl Kaller’s sensitive direction of a top-notch cast of six. (Connie Ray and Cotter Smith play Luke’s parents; Maddie Corman and Sean Dugan are friends of the couple.) By the second act, the Peter Jay Sharp Theater is a chamber of sniffles, but this is no mere tearjerker. It’s a tear-earner: Next Fall merits every drop.

CurtainUp A
(Elizabeth Ahlfors) All the characters— and there are no villains here— are believablu portrayed. Set designer Wilson Chin effectively evokes the bleak atmosphere of a hospital waiting room and for the flashbacks lets the hospital furniture double for the living room furnishings of Luke and Adam's apartment living room. The winner of the Blanche and Irving Laurie Foundation's 2008 Theatre Visions Fund award, Next Fall is a poignant portrayal of sincere intentions playing havoc with human emotions. Sheryl Kaller fluidly directs Naufft's respectful treatment of his characters' disparate, deeply held beliefs. A subtle culmination offers audiences the choice of accepting Adam's resolution or not. No judgment given.

(Michael Alan Connelly) The company built its name on plays about controversial social topics, a tradition that Geoffrey Nauffts’s Next Fall advances with its frank depiction of the personal and public challenges in gay life.

The New York Times A-
(Ben Brantley) The appealingly acted Naked Angels production that opened Wednesday night at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Sheryl Kaller, is an intellectual stealth bomb. Even as you’re being entertained by the witty talk of ingratiatingly imperfect people, feeling as comfortable as if you were watching your favorite long-running sitcom, big and uneasy questions — really big ones, without answers — are forming in the back of your mind. Don’t expect them to go away when the play is over. Mr. Nauffts, the artistic director of Naked Angels since 2007 and best known as an actor, has written the kind of gently incisive, naturalistic play that rarely materializes anymore. Topical plays tend to make their characters tote a Big Theme as if they were pack animals, scrunched into awkward postures by the weight of the idea on their backs... The second act isn’t quite as assured as the first. It includes a couple of monologues that while beautifully written, could be shorter; they feel self-conscious in a way nothing else here does, as if someone decided as an afterthought that certain characters should be allowed to explain themselves formally. But no performer strikes a false note, even when making a topical joke. You never think, “Oh, she would never say that.” (This sort of natural fit of character and words is less common than it should be.)

Backstage A-
(David A. Rosenberg) Rather than create easy-to-knock-down straw men, however, Nauffts makes the parents more than rednecks and Luke more than a one-track evangelical. As for Adam, he's a Woody Allen schnook, a hypochondriac with a sharp tongue and a firm hold on his emotions. In performance, Patrick Breen makes him vulnerable and open but with a reserve of feeling and doubt that he covers over with smart cracks and an observer's fa├žade. Patrick Heusinger is the frustrated Luke, frantic one moment, playful and seductive the next, creating someone tainted by and reacting against both his upbringing and his physical attractiveness. Connie Ray is most affecting as Arlene, while Cotter Smith underplays Butch. Maddie Corman and Sean Dugan do as much as they can with the underdeveloped friends.

The New Yorker A-
(Unsigned) The play’s strength turns out not to be its insights into faith, which are nothing new, but its depiction of a gay relationship taxed by shame. As Adam struggles to honor Luke’s wish to remain closeted to his conservative Southern family, we see the forces of love and dignity at odds, and the results are heartrending.

Variety B+
(Marilyn Stasio) Potentially awkward introductions go swiftly, thanks to Kaller's smooth helming of a uniformly good cast and efficient sound and light cues from the design team. Jessica Wegener's nicely interpreted costumes help a lot with character definition and, in the case of Holly, Adam's quick-witted best friend and the owner of the candles-and-tchotchkes shop where Luke works, colorful rags give us something entertaining to look at in the sterile hospital setting... The early scenes are the tricky part, since they have to convince us that Luke, a certifiably gorgeous and apparently talented tyro actor in his mid-20s, would fall madly in love with Adam, a smart, funny and crotchety guy of 40 who doesn't even have a decent job to show for all his cleverness. Luke may be sweet, but he's no bimbo, and in Heusinger's appealing perf, the pretty boy actually has a brain to call his own. But his dog-like devotion to sour, cynical Adam isn't entirely convincing, even in the magnetic perf turned in by Breen, who smartly shows us the insecure, self-destructive side of Adam's character that the playwright indicates, but doesn't really explain.

The Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) Arresting but not wholly convincing in the present—would you spend four years with someone who thinks your life together is evil?—Nauffts's setup evokes the gradual, painful coming-out of gays in the post-Stonewall era, especially the anguish of the plague years, when numberless AIDS-ward vigils merged with legally unprotected same-sex unions to produce a torrent of such acrimonious scenes: gay men bodily ejected from their dying lover's hospital rooms, or coming home from the memorial service to find their belongings dumped in the hall and the locks changed on the apartment door. The young don't know these stories, which need to be told. C-
(Martin Denton) Though the press release alludes to Proposition 8 (and made me think going in that the play would deal with the issue of whether Adam or Butch would ultimately be allowed to make decisions for the comatose Luke), the main idea of Next Fall is that Adam is an atheist or agnostic while Luke is a Christian who believes that because he accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior that he is going to heaven, notwithstanding the fact that he is a major sinner on account of his sleeping with men all the time. Now I've known many fundamentalist Christians in my time, and also many gay men, but I've never known an "out" gay man in a committed relationship who clings as fervently or blindly to his religion as Luke does, nor do I know of a fundamentalist religion of any stripe that embraces homosexuality in the way that Luke seems to think his does. So all of this felt highly unconvincing to me, as did the notion that Adam and Luke have been together for four years despite the fact that in every single scene in the play Adam complains bitterly about and/or makes fun of Luke's fundamentalist beliefs. Now, notwithstanding all of the above, Next Fall actually manages to hold the attention and entertain in its out-of-whack sitcom-y way.

TheaterMania D+
(Patrick Lee) The idea that these two could continue a relationship for almost half a decade despite this vast difference in values strains credibility. Further, their conversations --from their first meet cute on a Manhattan rooftop to a heart-to-heart four years later in their apartment -- remain static and one-dimensional; there's no sense conveyed that their dynamic has changed one iota over the years. As a result, the men come off not as fleshed-out characters as much as two walking and talking sets of opposing beliefs. (The situation is not helped by the pronounced lack of chemistry between the valiant actors.)... What works best in the play is the relationship between Adam and Arlene; the play's present-day scenes are greatly aided by their interaction and by the depiction of the gradual understanding between them. Ray has the play's best moments and, melodramatic as they are, she brings a dignity and a truthfulness to them. The other supporting cast members are not so lucky: Corman's character -- who owns the candle shop where the boys work -- may as well be called Sounding Board, while Dugan ably employs stillness in his one scene of substance as Luke's estranged friend, but the role doesn't amount to enough.

TONY A+ 14; CurtainUp A 13; NYMag A 13; The New York Times A- 12; Backstage A- 12; The New Yorker A- 12; Variety B+ 11; The Village Voice B+ 11; C- 6; TheaterMania D+ 5; TOTAL: 109/10 = 10.9 (B+)

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