BOTTOM LINE: This new play makes its audience feel the highs and lows the characters onstage experience. It’s a shared event, and it’s wonderful.
Next Fall was an off-Broadway gem last season, presented (and extended several times) by the company Naked Angels. With its great success and a glowing response, it’s not surprising that the production gets a Broadway run. I was excited to finally check it out, as last year’s hot ticket was hard to come by (and I consequently missed it). Though expectations were deservedly high, I was not disappointed. Next Fall is a fulfilling theatrical experience: the story is captivating, the characters are engaging, and the production is downright endearing.
When you remove the pretension from theatre and set about to create a show in the interest of quality storytelling, the integrity and relatability of the production can skyrocket. It’s not that high budgets and commercial aspirations are a bad thing, but there’s really a time and place for that type of production development. Next Fall certainly doesn’t put on airs. Playwright Geoffrey Nauffts could very well have concocted this story at his local Starbucks and hesitantly presented it to his friends for their approval, with the notion of a Broadway run merely an unattainable daydream. The cast of six doesn’t include any “names” and the production design is serviceable, rather than presentational. What this means is, Next Fall is allowed to be real. With that nagging glow of “Broadway” somehow elusively avoided, the story and the performances are given room to live and breathe which, ironically, makes it even more “Broadway” afterall. (Disclaimer: it’s produced by Elton John, but you’d never know…except for his name in giant letters above the title.)
Next Fall tells the story of a budding relationship between Luke (Patrick Heusinger) and Adam (Patrick Breen). The men are quite different but their connection is deep. Over five years they grow closer, move in together and merge their lives. The big disparity, bigger than age, background and looks, is their religious belief systems. Luke is a Christian and he reconciles his homosexuality with the moral code he has set for himself (for example, if he prays after sex it absolves him of sin). Adam, on the other hand, is a raging agnostic, barely tolerant of the devout. What really gets to Adam, even more than Luke’s prodding that if you’re not a believer you spend an eternity in hell, is that Luke refuses to tell his parents that he is gay. Although he is out in the rest of his life, he doesn’t feel comfortable going there with his conservative mom and dad.
The play finds the characters at a crossroads: Luke has been in an accident and they gather at the hospital awaiting news on his condition. Adam finds himself trapped in a room with his would-be in-laws…who don’t know who he is. Through conversations with Luke’s dad, Butch (Cotter Smith), and his mom, Arlene (Connie Ray), everyone navigates the tricky situation while trying to do right by Luke. With the help of Luke and Adam’s close friend Holly (Maggie Corman) and Luke’s religious-but-gay friend Brandon (Sean Dugan), those individuals most important in Luke’s life sort out the rights and wrongs of their own beliefs. Present moments in the hospital are interspersed with flashbacks to the past — these scenes let the audience see how Luke and Adam met and grew to where they find themselves presently.
The subject matter is serious, indeed, and on that level the show is emotionally heavy. There is much to relate to and it’s hard to not consider your own religious ideals, attitude toward homosexuality and resiliency in the face of despair. Next Fall does a noble job of presenting the subject matter in a relatively unbiased light — it is up for the audience to grab, and to interpret as they see fit. At the exact same time, however, Next Fall is a wonderful comedy. With witty writing and a self-effacing delivery, the script reads like an HBO sitcom, in which each character is given ample opportunities to flex their comedic muscles but a laugh track would feel awkward. As the jokes flow, the audience is reminded that laughter is a solid coping mechanism for stress, and the comedy is welcomed on this stage.
The best thing about Next Fall is the exceptional bevy of performances, given by all six cast members. They are all originals from the off-Broadway run, and it’s clear that they are intimately familiar with these people, thus truly able to bring them to life. Flaws and all, these six people are inherently real. I certainly hope that a show of this nature can sustain on Broadway (and at over $100 per ticket). Plays, particularly ones without Hollywood actors, can be a hard sell, but Next Fall is certainly a worthwhile way to spend an evening. The response from critics has been largely positive, and I’m pleased to add to that growing list — I highly recommend Next Fall for anyone looking for an intelligent and satisfying play.
Next Fall plays at the Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 W. 44th St. Performances are Tue 7 PM, Wed and Sat 3 and 8pm, Thu-Fri 8 PM, and Sun 3 PM; the show runs 2 hrs. 20 min., with one intermission. Tickets are $81.50-$116.50 and are available at telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200; $40-$65 tickets are available with code NFTM124, valid through Sun 4/4. For more New York theatre reviews and information, check out Theatre Is Easy at theasy.com.