The bad news is that Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall, in its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, is not a particularly revolutionary play in terms of narrative or narration. The good news is that though the story is only a slight twist on a rather familiar premise, this production makes for a wholly enjoyable, often inspired and just-thought-provoking-enough night of theatre.
Next Fall originally opened Off-Broadway in 2009 at Playwrights Horizons, a Naked Angels production penned by its artistic director, Geoffrey Nauffts. By early 2010 it transferred to Broadway and though the cast has changed since coming West—a change that includes Mr. Nauffts stepping into the role of his protagonist, Adam—director Sheryl Kaller remains with the production since its Off-Broadway days.
The story follows the relationship between a New York City couple and the potentially fatal accident that befalls 25-year-old Luke, the debatably more mature counterpoint to Nauffts’ indisputably more neurotic 40-year-old Adam. Fluidly moving back in forth in time to reveal the genesis and evolution of the couples’ relationship, the play centers in large part on disparate belief systems and the ensuing fallout, though in this case it is Luke’s Christianity pitted against Adam’s pronounced atheism and self-imposed circumscription in the realm of hypochondria: one of the production’s strongest scenes begins with Adam surreptitiously sneaking into the couples’ living room to voluntarily fall down the rabbit hole of self-diagnosis-by-Internet, convinced he is suffering from a brain tumor or another similarly illogical affliction due to an unabating headache.
Wilson Chin’s scenic design manages to capture the sterility of the hospital in which takes place the present-day action of the play while being amenable to a host of flashback settings, such variation of locale distinguished with subtlety by means of Jeff Croiter’s lighting design. My only complaint was the use of a scrim that literally depicted autumn but once actors were placed in front of it, the mostly bare stage with a floating scrim filled with foliage became exponentially less obtrusive.
Reputedly the first play of Mr. Nauffts’ to be produced, it occasionally relies upon convention to sustain itself: the impetus for the action that ensues is a character in a coma that reunites a menagerie of people who have issues with one another, issues that will slowly unfold and be explained through the course of the two acts. There are a few sight gags, however excusable they are due to their hilarity, and more than a few stock characters: the bigoted father (Jeff Fahey) with whom the son is unable to come clean in regards to his sexuality; the hippy, flaky mother (Lesley Ann Warren) who could not endure the repression of motherhood; there is even the requisite female friend (Betsy Brandt, portraying a character who is a far cry from her Breaking Bad alter ego) with a predilection for gay men and an overreliance on New Age pseudo-spirituality—she even owns a candle shop where both Adam and Luke worked. Brandon (Ken Barnett) rounds out the list of the supporting characters whose relationship to Luke is left unexplained for a good portion of the play.
However, even with characters that are occasionally underdeveloped (I am still undecided if I disliked Lesley Ann Warren’s Arlene or simply Lesley Ann Warren in that particular role) or in the case of Luke, primarily a foil to Nauffts’ Adam, the acting helps significantly to smooth over the occasionally rough edges of broad characterization. Holly (Brandt) and Brandon (Barnett) play their roles with naturalistic understatement, though Barnett seemingly had a hard time keeping a straight face during one of Nauffts’ monologues of utter neuroses (for his part, Nauffts was not helping matters by calling Barnett by Nauffts’ own character’s name). And when you can play a self-proclaimed f-hag (Brandt) and bring something new to the table, especially when such newness is a sincere moment of pondering if someone is saving your spot in heaven…well, I personally applaud you.
At the crux of both story and production is the chemistry between Nauffts’ Adam and the wonderfully-beyond-wonderful James Wolk and his take on Luke. To the credit of the writing and acting both, the 15-year age difference between these two characters was not momentarily jarring after the initial scene in which they meet and in spite of this couple not making sense on paper—the self-loathing atheist meets the slightly self-loathing Christian and in spite of self-loathing being their commonality, this causes more than a bit of friction—it makes perfect sense that these two would stay together the length of time that they have, as their chemistry becomes increasingly palpable with every real-time second that ticks by. The dialogue manages to mostly avoid being trite even in light of the seeming incongruity of believing that one’s religion rejects one’s sexual orientation but believing in it nonetheless. And while faith is certainly at the center of the story, so, too, is the transformative power of trust and the constant battle for self-acceptance.
This is an imperfect play but still a good one; Nauffts strikes a fine balance between comedy and pathos, naturalism and theatricality. With time he will learn not to undermine his own potency (several scenes could have done without the button tacked onto them and I felt the second act more than a smidge stronger than the first). The meta-theatricality of seeing the playwright onstage as his scenes are brought to life, alternately lending vibrancy to his own words and playing audience to them, added interest and dimensionality. But now onto what I have been waiting to gush about, and by far the best scene in the play: the above alluded-to midnight Internet search for symptoms of brain tumors or aneurysms or whatever Adam is morbidly Googling. From this comic set-up we behold a moment of earnest yearning for belief, of an eloquent annunciation (and Annunciation) of what is at the root of religion at its best. Nauffts does not merely understand as playwright nor does Wolk merely demonstrate as actor: together they find a moment of transcendence. This is hardly the only thing that the play got right. But, even if it were, it would have been enough.