There was a palpable heaviness at the Geffen Playhouse for the opening night of Geoffrey Nauffts’s Next Fall. Gil Cates, the theater’s producing director, had died suddenly just two nights earlier, but company officials decided against postponing the production—an important Southern California premiere.
It was the right call. The play—which evokes belly laughs even as it poses deep questions about the existence of God, the certainty of death, and the meaning of life—serves as an eloquent tribute to Cates. It’s meaningful, accessible theater, beautifully staged and resonant enough to keep you talking, and thinking, about the issues it raised long after the final curtain.
A Tony nominee for Best Play last year, Next Fall looks at the role faith plays in our lives—how it restricts us in some ways and frees us in others. Its central characters are a gay couple living in New York City. Adam (playwright Nauffts) is a failed writer turned teacher; he considers religion ridiculous nonsense. Luke (James Wolk) is an actor whose career is starting to take off; he is a born-again Christian.
Not surprisingly, their differing views provide fodder for conflict during the men’s four-year relationship. Luke (note the Biblical names) is careful not to proselytize, but little things he does—such as praying for God’s forgiveness after having sex—drive Adam crazy. Adam, meanwhile, is a habitual provocateur; he delights in pointing out the logical inconsistencies in Luke’s belief system and accuses him of “self-loathing by association.”
We see his point but understand Luke’s stance just as clearly: He loves his partner and wants to share with him the peace and confidence he gets from his faith. Adam is actually the one who exhibits hints of self-loathing behavior, including chronic hypochondria. Certain of the rightness of his secular/scientific worldview, he feels the need to convince everyone around him. So who, really, is the intolerant one?
Next Fall is structured as a series of flashbacks—scenes Adam recalls as he sits in a hospital waiting room, waiting for word on whether Luke, who was in a serious accident, will pull through. Joining him are a couple of friends (Ken Barnett and Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt) and Luke’s long-divorced, politically incorrect parents (Lesley Ann Warren and Jeff Fahey), who are willfully oblivious to the fact their son is gay.
This is Nauffts’s first play, and especially in the first act, it suffers from being overly eager to please the audience. For extended stretches the playwright seems to be channeling Neil Simon with one-liners emerging like clockwork—some funny, others not. When one character mocks another by asking “Are you done, Shecky?” (a reference to longtime stand-up comedian Shecky Greene), my impulse was to shout the same thing to the playwright.
But to his credit, Nauffts largely refrains from joking in his captivating second act. And his writing shows a real maturity in one sense: Some of the most memorable moments feature imagery rather than dialogue. A sight gag featuring a Teletubbie doll is hilarious, and a tableau that (presumably intentionally) mimics the Pieta is quietly heartbreaking.
Director Sheryl Kaller, who staged the original New York production, pulls excellent performances out of each member of the superb cast. Besides contributing several deft physical comedy bits, Nauffts does a superb job of conveying Adam’s lack of comfort in his own skin. The contrast between his nervous twitchiness and Wolk’s relaxed ease is striking and helps give their philosophical arguments real emotional depth.
“You people are all about judgment,” Adam complains to Luke at one point. “You even have a day named after it.” But Next Fall reminds us you don’t have to be religious to be judgmental. The best way to avoid that fate is to truly get into the heads and hearts of those we disagree with. The best way to do that is to see a great piece of theater, like this one.
Next Fall continues through December 4 at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. Performances are nightly except Monday, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $47 to $77. Information: (310) 208-5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.com.