Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Next Fall

According to the program notes, The Rep’s Studio Theatre production of Next Fall is only the second production of Geoffrey Nauffts’ play.  It opened off-Broadway in 2009 in a production put on by a group who wanted to “create theatre ‘for a generation that wanted to break out of convention and scream.’”   The production eventually moved to Broadway where it ran for half a year.  

If you can get there to see it, you should.  It is running at the Grandel Theatre in Grand Centre through November 14. 

The play, directed by Seth Green, opens in a nondescript room that might be a living room or a waiting room, where Holly and Brandon are sitting in chairs.  It isn’t clear at first how well Holly and Brandon know each other, or how they know Arlene the older woman with an almost Arkansas accent who joins them, bringing Holly coffee.  Eventually we figure out that the scene is set in a hospital and the thing the three people have in common is someone named “Luke” who has been involved in a terrible accident and is hanging onto life.  Luke is Arlene’s son and the friend of Holly and Brandon (who appear to know each other but not be close).  Eventually Butch, Luke’s dad who has the same twang as Arlene, shows up.  We figure out that he and Arlene are no longer married.  Finally, Adam arrives from the airport.  Greeted by Holly as “sweetie” and looking visibly nervous around Luke’s parents, it isn’t clear who Adam is.  

Through a series of flashbacks we learn about Luke and his relationship with Holly and Brandon and, especially, Adam.  Luke and Adam, it turns out, are in a long term relationship but Luke has never told his parents that he is gay.  

On simply that basis, this might be an interesting play.  The idea that Luke is dying but Adam isn’t even allowed in to see him because only “family” is allowed in raises all kinds of questions.   The same is true for heterosexual couples who aren’t married but, of course, they at least have the choice to marry.  Of course, they ALL have the choice of legal documents in anticipation of this type of situation and the lawyer in me wanted to scream “See?  You should have planned for this.”  But I digress.

If this was simply a play about the idea that you never know when life will throw you a curve ball and you should be sure to tell the people you love that you love them before it is too late, it would be a good premise for a play.

But this play is even more interesting.   The program notes say this about the playwright:

Geoffrey Nauffts grew up in a household with no religion or spirituality.  he was always fascinated by people who practiced religion, but more to the point, he was fascinated by people who had faith in a creator. The idea that there is a larger entity, a creator, a protector, who is omniscient, who guides us, perhaps punishes us, and hears our prayers is not a belief that he shares … [He] has chosen to write a play that explores the dynamic between a believer and a non-believer … [and] has chosen to make the main characters a gay couple.  All this allows him to investigate the nature of faith and generosity of spirit from a number of different interesting and dramatic perspectives.”

Boy did he. In the flashbacks we meet Luke, who is just a wonderful person.  He dropped out of law school to be an actor and he is a generous, open hearted person who knows the moment he meets Adam that it is love.  Adam is a funny, insecure hypochondriac who falls hard for Luke.  They eventually move in together. 

If the definition of a good relationship is one in which each party can disagree with each other with respect, this is a great relationship.  Sure, there are moments when each crosses the line and angers the other one but they are able to get past those moments by true contrition – which doesn’t mean changing their mind about their own position.

And what do they disagree about the most?  God and faith.  Adam is an agnostic or even perhaps an atheist.  A good person who lives a good life but has no real need for faith.  It would not be true to say that he has no patience with faith because he does show infinite patience with Luke who has abundant faith. 

Luke is a Christian.   But Nauffts didn’t make him just a generalized Christian, he made him an ultra-conservative type of Christian.  Luke doesn’t just pray quietly before every meal, he truly and deeply believes in heaven, hell, sin and the rapture.  He is also a true Christian in the sense that he doesn’t judge those who aren’t like him.  He is also not particularly evangelical.  He wishes that Adam would accept Jesus Christ because then Adam would go to heaven when he dies but he understands that he can’t force Adam to any kind of belief.  It is, in fact, Adam who usually brings up the”religion issue” and argues with Luke in a very patient rational way. 

Adam’s arguments make complete rational sense.  He lays out for all to see the absurdities of some of Luke’s beliefs.  But it never matters.  Luke truly believes and he never stops believing.  And we the audience believe that he will never stop believing. 

And so at the end when Adam can tell Luke’s obnoxious right wing racist homophobic “Christian” dad, who is having a hard time dealing with pulling the plug on Luke, that Luke firmly believed that he was going to a better place, we know Adam is telling a truth even if it isn’t the truth that Adam believes. 

All of this sounds intense and sad and full of argument and rage.  But this is a funny play.  There are laugh out loud moments.  Each of the characters seem very real.  Butch may be the closest to a stereotype but we are left in no doubt that he loved his son.  Arlene may be more forgiving than Butch but she is still tied into the same religious belief system.  Holly believes as Adam does but she never wants to rock the boat.  And Brandon?  Brandon is the most enigmatic of characters.  Like Luke he is a gay Christian but his quiet exterior hides a great deal more self hate than Luke.  In one scene it becomes clear that Brandon (who is only attracted to black men and, hence, not to Luke) has fallen out with Luke not because Luke hooked up with Adam but because Luke fell in love with Adam.  Brandon understands the occasional “sinful act” but he cannot condone the wrong kind of love.  

And yet even Brandon seems a bit redeemed by the end . 

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the wonderful cast.  Each and every one was perfect in their role.  Susan Greenhill, as Arlene, and Colin Hanlin, as Luke, were outstanding.  It’s rare that I completely forget that a stage actor is an actor, but throughout the whole play I totally believed they were their characters.

But mostly I liked the play itself.  The contrast between the writing of this play, which is tight and directed and focused with deeply drawn characters, and the writing of High which seemed to be all over the place, was extreme.  I can see why this play moved to Broadway and had a nice run there.  It is playing in The Studio Rep because … well, probably because scenes of homosexual men showing affection for each other are still considered too much for the mainstage at the Rep.  It’s a shame, because this play is 100 times better than High