A flourishing member of a precious and nearly extinct species has been sighted on Broadway, looking remarkably vital and sure of itself for a creature so often given up for dead. “Next Fall,” which opened Thursday night at the Helen Hayes Theater, is that genuine rara avis, a smart, sensitive and utterly contemporary New York comedy. The question now is whether theatergoers will recognize that “Next Fall” embodies something they’ve been sorely missing, perhaps without knowing it, for years.
NEXT FALL Broadway Reviews
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The best new American play of the Broadway season, Next Fall leaves you thinking about rapture and rupture. If you go, which you should, be prepared to laugh some, perhaps to cry some, and then to rise in appreciation.
Nauffts’s script is a deft blend of urban comedy and pathos, exploring the legal rights of same-sex partners, religious tolerance and the crucial moral importance of speaking the truth before it’s too late.
The play, which had a successful run last summer at Playwrights Horizons' small theater, is something of a risk on Broadway today. No stars. A playwright who's not well-known, although he has extensive acting credits and is artistic director of the theater company, Naked Angels. Don't let the lack of celebrity deter you. "Next Fall" is expertly cast, enormously entertaining and even laugh-filled despite the underlying seriousness of its subject matter.
Lacking big-name stars, Geoffrey Nauffts' play is going to be a tough sell. But anyone interested in quality theater would do well to check out this deeply moving and surprisingly funny work at the Helen Hayes Theater. Even the subject matter initially seems off-putting: A young man lies in a hospital bed near death, while his friends, family and lover bicker over issues like the existence of God. But if this description makes the evening sound like a downer, it's far from it. Under the skillful direction of Sheryl Kaller, the play crackles with emotional force and acerbic humor.
In its move to Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre—even though this is one of the Main Stem's smallest houses—director Sheryl Kaller's tender staging has lost most of its intimacy. Fortunately, "Next Fall" retains its power to move. Nauffts, artistic director of Naked Angels, the company that produced the Off-Broadway run, is an actor himself, and he knows how to create roles of depth and complexity. No one is a villain or a hero here, as each character brings his or her own backstory and set of values to the conflict. Nauffts makes no judgments. The homophobic yet loving father is treated with the same compassion shown to the secularly driven Adam and the purpose-searching Holly, Adam's friend and sometime employer at her candle shop. The playwright also wisely keeps the saccharine to a minimum. What could easily have turned into a gay version of a Lifetime TV movie is instead an honest portrait of realistic people.
Thanks to a U.S. political landscape that keeps hitting new heights of contentiousness whenever Christian values go up against liberal-intellectual individualism, the debate these days often resembles a dogfight. One of the distinctions of Geoffrey Nauffts' "Next Fall" is that it considers both sides of the faith argument without sneering at either, while examining a committed gay relationship whose harmony is undermined by one partner's beliefs and the other's atheism. The play had a quieter appeal in its hit Off Broadway run last summer; the slicked-up transfer pushes harder, particularly for laughs. But it remains a moving domestic drama.
The show often drifts toward movie-of-the-week goodwill, but, then, movies of the week are rarely as charming and as humbly moving as "Next Fall"... The play has lost some of its intimacy in the transfer, and the characters sometimes look lost on Wilson Chin's cheap-looking set -- especially in the scenes set in a hospital waiting room.
Sheryl Kaller’s direction is savvy enough, as are Jess Goldstein’s costumes. Wilson Chin’s set design contends valiantly with the frequent changes of locale, and the acting is mostly good. Only Adam’s intended charm seems to me undercut by Patrick Breen’s machine-gun delivery and cadaverous looks. Patrick Heusinger, however, is thoroughly appealing as the boyishly affectionate and fearful Luke.
While "Next Fall" is a rather quiet and modestly-scaled play, it reaches a dramatic peak when confronting the uncomfortable tension between religious faith, sexuality and family. At one point, Adam confronts Luke with the brutal observation that, "if Matthew Shepard hadn't accepted Jesus Christ before he died, he's in hell, and his killers who, say, have, are going to heaven." Sheryl Kaller's production showcases sensitive performances that capture the heart and sadness inherent in the play.
Next Fall comes on a little too strong only in the second half, when it begins to belabor some of its points: The conflicts caused by Adam’s refusal to adopt Luke’s earnest, unshakable beliefs begin to feel falsely exaggerated. But the show’s breezy, convivial tone, even in the face of some big life-or-death questions, wins the day. Adam and Luke may not be legally married, but then, living in sin can be its own state of grace.
If a generous spirit and the courage of one's convictions were all it took to craft a great play, then Next Fall would be Pulitzer Prize material... The characters are redolent of archetypes and clichés we've encountered too many times before. Adam, a whiny, wisecracking urbanite with hypochondriac tendencies, suggests an early Woody Allen protagonist without the self-effacing charm, and Patrick Breen's monochromatic performance hardly makes him more appealing.
For a play that begins with a young man lying in a coma with a head injury after a traffic accident, there's certainly no shortage of laughs in the opening moments of "Next Fall." Or, for that matter, throughout its subsequent two hours, when things turn even graver for the patient. Which begs the question: Can a serious drama be seriously funny? In the case of this gay love story, it can, due to Geoffrey Nauffts' sitcom leanings. It can be seriously didactic, too.
But, as much I enjoyed the play, I couldn’t really buy it, because I don’t buy Adam and Luke’s relationship. There are lovely and tender scenes between the two, but their worldviews are so different—and so much time is spent fighting about that—that’s it’s tough to see how they ever made it to a third date.
Tightened and retouched since its Off-Broadway run last summer, Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall (Helen Hayes Theatre) presents a seemingly simple story that turns out to be crisscrossed with conflicting hidden agendas. The four-year relationship of Adam (Patrick Breen) and Luke (Patrick Heusinger), seen in flashback glimpses, runs up against a blank wall when Luke is concussed in a traffic accident and Adam, stressed out in the ICU waiting room, has to confront his lover's parents, divorced but both solidly born-again: tender, scatterbrained Arlene (Connie Ray) and ultra-right, ultra-self-righteous Butch (Cotter Smith). The expected Christian-unbeliever fight over pulling the plug on comatose Luke never exactly happens, and we only get a bare flicker of Adam's struggle for the right to have time alone with his dying love (evoking so many similar struggles from the worst part of the pre-"cocktail" AIDS era).
"Next Fall" is a love story about belief. I'm afraid I am not a believer - not in the love story or in the play. Geoffrey Nauffts' drama, which has leaped to Broadway after a well-received run Off-Broadway last summer, has been embraced by its admirers as a thoughtful and sensitive exploration of a five-year relationship between two gay men of differing faiths in New York... The relationship between Luke and Adam is told in flashbacks, which director Sheryl Kaller and designer Wilson Chin maneuver with grace. Nauffts, an accomplished actor and artistic director of Naked Angels, where the play originated, creates individual characters with a breezy style. But the theological conflict is far too big and messy for such a tidy, ordinary play.
It is appalling that in this day and age, there is no way of communicating to the actors "It's not you, it's the play," as one storms out of the theatre. And so I sat wringing my hands during the final ten minutes of Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall as the characters were tasked with discussing the final ten minutes of Thornton Wilder's Our Town and coming to the jejune conclusion that people just can't appreciate what they have until it's gone. It is not a spoiler to note that this borrowed catharsis takes place in a hospital waiting room just when the waiting has ended and the five pontificating points of view passed off as dramatis personae are about to finally realize that, in the face of death, we are not so very different.
The intentions of Geoffrey Nauffts's "Next Fall," a new play about a man (Patrick Breen) whose much younger lover (Patrick Heusinger) is dying, are palpably high-minded, and I suspect that many playgoers will think that this makes it worth seeing. Alas, "Next Fall" is cliché-infested and cloyingly sentimental, and the fact that it has transferred to Broadway after a successful Off-Broadway run means only that you can fool some of the people most of the time.
From the sniffles pervading the auditorium, apparently some people are moved deeply by this comedy-drama-weeper. Not me. At least not in the way the playwright intends. Frankly I could scarcely wait to move myself out of the theater and into a martini. The modest production trimly directed by Sheryl Kaller is all right as far as the acting and staging goes. The play, however, is shamefully derivative claptrap regarding an unlikely gay couple. It reeks with such tired business as clueless, bigoted parents, the obligatory ditsy-though-wise gal pal and even a (non-AIDS) sickroom confrontation. This is meant to be a cutting-edge love story of today? Really?