Okay, so Geoffrey Nauffts’s Next Fall isn’t about “old” times per se, but its content seems firmly rooted in the seriocomic patterns of seasoned old pros. Take the homosexual preference out of this setup and see if it doesn’t hold to a sort of Doc Simon programme: Two men—nebbishy, inquisitive Adam (Patrick Breen) and the much-younger, devoutly Christian actor Luke (Patrick Heusinger)—embark on a rocky relationship that spans over four years, while dodging the latter’s unaware, intolerant parents (now divorced) and relying on their best friends (one is a woman, natch) for moral support. Add some zesty one-liners, some juicy albeit palatable deliberations on faith, an unfortunate car accident, and a big, sloppy heart and you’ve got Next Fall.
And through the play’s sturdy, funny, confident first act, you feel as if this type of patter comedy with some deeper meaning just might be the ticket to a rebirth, only this time with same-sex participants. Told in flashbacks as Luke is comatose in the aforementioned accident, the play backracks their relationship as their friends and family wait currently for good news, while Adam, wracked with guilt and frustrated by not being able to tell Luke’s parents who he truly is, confides in best pal Holly (Maddie Corman), the fluttery-adorable boss of the candle shop where both men have worked. Luke also has a mysterious best friend, Brandon (Sean Dugan), who has always been adversarial toward Adam, and whose true nature is just as mysterious to us through most of the play. And then there are the parents: saucy, genial but somewhat dim Arlene (Connie Ray) and super alpha-male, deliberate, rock-solid Butch (Cotter Smith).
So it’s with some disappointment that the second act of Next Fall seems to deflate as more contrivances get thrown into the mix, almost as if Nauffts believed his premise needed more goosing and the audience needed more reassurance. The easygoing, character-driven flow of act one becomes less assured as Adam and Luke bicker more about their religious differences (in at least one scene too many), and some begin to unveil their darker natures, especially in one majorly unconvincing moment between Luke and Butch. The latter is a man that, to me, seemed perfectly reasonable and upstanding, if a little rigid up to that point, before suddenly becoming an alarming bigot for no other reason than to punctuate the scene’s outcome (Luke becoming hesitant about coming out to his dad), when it could have been handled in so many more delicate, believable ways. And it’s nearly impossible for a veteran theatergoer’s eyes not to roll back in his or her head when, in one late scene, Arlene actually asks the group point blank to explain to her what happens in Our Town, which happens to be Luke’s biggest achievement in his acting career. It’s the ultimate no-no of too much tell and not enough show, and also not the wisest idea when a transporting, highly acclaimed version of said show is still playing about 30 blocks away.
So it’s a miraculous thing that the evening still manages to be worth catching, because of a spectacular ensemble (expertly helmed by director Sheryl Kaller), possibly the best in a season filled with superb ones. Corman, even while playing a cliché (see my take on The Pride below for the antithesis), is absolutely delightful and always missed when off-stage, she brightens even the drab blue-green hospital walls (shrewdly designed by Wilson Chin). Ray makes Arlene more than a dim bulb, and actually transcends some of the play’s creakiest moments, Smith is commanding and credible as her ex-hubby, and Dugan has the unenviable task of making a passive, cryptic character illuminating and lived-in. And the leads play the sweet-sad central couple with all they’ve got. The impossibly hunky Heusinger essays the difficult role of an inarticulate gay Christian with ease, and the May-December romance works smashingly with Breen as the older and wiser of the two. You actually believe these two would exist in the real world, so it becomes devoid of that gay playwright/wishful-thinking bug that infects most budding wits. Next Fall is far from blessed as a piece of work, but when this troupe takes the stage, you often feel like His work is being done.
The Pride is every bit as brooding as Next Fall is optimistic, but in its own crafty way, manages to not look doom and gloom straight in the face even while it harrowingly portrays the downside of gay relationships. Set in Britain in both 1958 and 2008, and flip-flopping the timeframes without designation (something people have found a bit disconcerting, but seemed easy enough to comprehend to these eyes), Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play is heavy on the speeches, and Joe Mantello’s snappy direction could have let a few moments steep to provide fuller catharsis, but it’s still quite resonant as an actors’ piece; it’s the kind of dramatic work that straight actors across the globe beg to “go gay” for.
Playing two different sets of male lovers 50 years apart (but both named Philip and Oliver), Hugh Dancy and Ben Whishaw find magnificent reserves of repression and desire in characters that could have been dreary and unsympathetic. Dancy, who never seems more at home than on a stage, is especially thrilling as the pent-up Philip of the ’50s, a steely coil of fear and anxiety always threatening to drive him to the brink. And for all those who secretly lament never seeing Whishaw’s Hamlet (which many believe is the greatest modern interpretation), he finally gets to rivet stateside as a sort of promiscuous, trouble-seeking gay version of the great Dane, at least in his modern Oliver; his marvelous, all-limbs physicality seemingly stretches the entirety of the Lucille Lortel stage.
Adam James, playing various other figures in the lives of the two men, is too broad in a few of them, but scores mightily in the play’s most unnerving scene, in which he appears as a ’50s doctor attempting to cure Philip of his affliction via the suggestion of a literal purge. And at last, a gay-themed play finally knows what to do with a female character! Playing both Dancy’s self-aware ’50s wife and Whishaw’s more-than-she-seems modern BFF, Andrea Riseborough serves much more of a purpose than being a saintly sounding board for sage advice to the heartbroken. This is a woman—or women actually, as she beautifully makes them two very specific people—who doesn’t have all the answers, and never pretends to, and Riseborough, also making an auspicious New York debut, makes damn sure this does not ever become a mere boys’ club.
Next Fall is now playing at the Helen Hayes Theatre (240 West 44th Street) in New York City and is an open-ended run. Schedule: Tue at 7pm, Wed-Sat at 8pm, Wed, Sat & Sun at 3pm. Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, one intermission. The Pride is now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St) in New York City and continues until March 28. Schedule varies. Running time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, one intermission.