SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “Next Fall”, the Tony-nominated play by Goeffrey Nauffts, is a truly manipulative piece of theater; what starts out as a comedy gradually transforms into a serious examination of some significant contemporary issues. It manages to navigate a very tricky balance among a cast of six characters who one minute crack wise and the next minute find themselves facing what first seems like an unbreachable divide as the play explores current expressions of faith and disbelief. On one level, it can be seen as yet another tale, full of wit and fury, of coming out of the closet. On its more profound level, it’s really about accepting the beliefs of others rather than demonizing them. The challenge for an audience is to accept the fact that faith, rather than being discarded like the proverbial baby with the bath water, is dealt with and dueled with, in a fundamentally personal manner. One has to believe that Luke (Dan Roach), one of the two main characters, has somehow managed to keep his deeply felt evangelical Christian beliefs while living with his older atheist lover, intensely hypochondriacal Adam (Will McGarrahan). Theirs is a truly odd coupling indeed, separated by age as well as value systems. What’s harder to accept, in 2011, is that, not only has a grown man like Luke been unable to come out to his parents, but that he is conflicted about the incongruity of his faith and his lifestyle and unable to reach a mature resolution.
When first encountered by this reviewer in its Broadway form, with the exact same text, this leap of faith was not entirely successful, though extremely moving. This time, in the hands of director Scott Edmiston and a very believable cast, it feels more natural. Among its many surprises is just how much funnier it seems. After the cutest of meetings, where Luke, an actor working as a waiter, gives Adam the Heimlich maneuver rather than a pickup line, it’s no time before the two have moved in together despite some immediate danger signals. Adam has no problem being completely out; Luke declaims that “we’re all sinners, it’s human nature; but as long as you’ve accepted Christ”, everything will be alright in the end. Enter Adam’s boss and friend Holly (Deb Martin) who notes that Adam is guilty of “self-loathing by association”, and Luke’s former buddy Brandon (Kevin Kaine), also an evangelical Christian and also attracted to men, who can live with same-gender attraction but draws the line at love. Then we meet Luke’s parents from Florida, divorced for twenty years, Arlene (Amelia Broome) and Butch (Robert Walsh), who finally meet Adam as a result of a tragic event in Luke’s life. It’s significant that Nauffts chose not AIDS but a traffic accident as a crisis, thus emphasizing the universality of random tragedy. Now the larger dilemmas are, whose place is it to tell the parents about Luke’s lifestyle, and who gets to make life or death decisions on his behalf.
In such a small ensemble of extraordinary actors, it’s difficult to single anyone out, but it should be noted that Will McGarrahan and Amelia Broome have never been better, and their communication proves the most memorable moments. They’re aided by the clever lighting shifts by Karen Perlow and simple but effective scenery by Janie E. Howland. As the character Arlene puts it when remembering Luke’s performance in “Our Town”, “there wasn’t much in the way of scenery”, but somehow they made it effective, even if she’d forgotten the point of it. As Holly responds, it was about “how precious life is even while they’re living it”. Both could equally be said of “Next Fall”, especially in Edmiston’s capable hands.
By the end of the play, Luke’s opening line (“we shall all be changed”) proves quite prophetic, as all of the characters have changed, in varying degrees. Adam says to Butch: “Luke wasn’t afraid”, he had certainty. “He looked at me…..finally, I believed”. In what, the audience is left to debate. In the very last line, Adam’s deceptively simple response to a call from Luke’s half brother Ben is profoundly simple: “This is…..My name is Adam”. The brilliance of the work is that the audience can anticipate what the balance of their conversation will be like. Nauffts has stated that his play is about everyone grasping for grace. This production is life-affirmingly, unquestionably, full of grace.