Wednesday, April 7, 2010

REVIEW: Next Fall

Review of the April 3 matinee performance at the Helen Hayes Theatre in New York City. Starring Patrick Breen, Maddie Corman, Jeremy Dugan, Patrich Heusinger, Connie Ray, and Cotter Smith.  A play by Geoffrey Nauffts.  Direction by Seryl Kaller. 2 hours, 20 minutes, including intermission.

If you ever want to start an argument in my house, bring up the existence of God. My late grandmother was a devout Baptist – not the extreme tent revival kind, the never miss a Sunday, teach Sunday school and bake for every single fundraiser kind. My dad, on the other hand, is a devout atheist quoting science over Biblical beliefs every chance he got. Her death a few years ago, and the accompanying weeping and wailing of her friends from the congregation, as well as their outpouring of support for him despite (or maybe because of) his lack of belief, has given him pause, and he like the rest of his immediate family is willing now to admit that there is the possibility that a Higher Power exists. His zeal with subsequent outer space and missing link discoveries is tempered with a healthy dose of humility and searching for “the other side of the argument.”

Patrick Heusinger and Patrick Breen

If you know anything about the new play, Next Fall, then you will understand from the paragraph above why I feel a very deep, personal connection to this play, which centers around a loving couple whose main bone of contention is whether or not God exists, and more importantly whether or not they will be able to join each other in the afterlife. It so happens that I can relate to the couple as a gay man, as the couple (Luke and Adam) is same-sex, Luke is my dream man’s 20-something age and I am Adam’s older age (an age that spells certain death in certain gay social circles). Further, I, like Luke, fought the inner struggle about how my religious beliefs fit my sexual desires, though I am not a fundamentalist Christian, and I, too, struggled for most of my life for parental approval, and spent far too long in the closet. And like Adam, I struggle with the whole God thing in general, satisfy myself with staying busy, clinging to my “fag hag” and enjoying the laughs I get with a few saucy barbs at cocktail parties.

But what I found most appealing about the play is the fact that it is way more universal than the characters (and my description thus far) might lead you to believe. Adam and Luke could just as easily be Adam and Sally, Sarah and Sally, or they could be same-sex roommates. The conflict between what we believe and whom we love is a struggle that can be found in any demographic, any religion, and any society on Earth, I’m sure. I’ve often written on this very blog that the now de rigueur inclusion of gay characters can often become tedious and so obvious. It is to playwright Geoffrey Nauffts’ credit that he uses stereotypes lightly and often with a sense of humor, and that he continually reaches for solid arguments on both sides of the many issues this play brings up.

Sean Dugan, Patrick Breen, Maddie Corman 

The play is a heady mix of delicious one-liners, situational comedy, and heartbreaking drama, soul-searching tragedy and, ultimately, an ending that poses as many questions as it does answers. Indeed, the final 10 minutes are among the most intense, emotional, funny and profoundly sad that I have experienced in a theatre. For that, I must credit the playwright, director Sheryl Krall, and the tightest ensemble of actors currently on the Broadway stage – including next to normal, the other quality gold standard of the Great White Way. Ms. Krall has directed this deceptively light, ultimately profound script with a nurturing hand and a keen sense of detail, down to the character-driven arrangement of the last waiting room magazines and careful arrangement of books on a shelf in a brand new apartment. She has created wonderfully rich relationships through deft staging and the juxtaposition of characters per scene. (The play unfolds in both real time and flashbacks.) We find out a lot about who these people are just by how they sit, look at each other, and behave during many Pinter-esque pauses. Visually, this is aided by the simple set, alternately a hospital waiting room, a New York rooftop, and a mid-town apartment, designed by Wilson Chin (set), Jess Goldstein (costumes) and Jeff Croiter (lighting).

At first sight, all of the characters seem to be cut and dry, black and white, almost to the point of discomfort – you ask yourself why do these people like each other? When you begin to realize that whether or not they like each other is the least of their complexities, you also start to realize that we have been carefully manipulated into seeing both sides of issues that before the show starts we probably would have had definite, finite ideas. And when it is all over, you’d have to be pretty numb from the shoulders up to not find your mind racing at all of the possibilities and counter arguments presented. You might even find yourself miffed that while the plot has a definite conclusion, the themes explored are decidedly left up in the air. Naufffts presents well thought out arguments on all sides of an issue and then leaves them there for you to decide. He makes very few judgment calls for you. Best of all, for folks who want to leave their plays in the theater, this play can be just as enjoyable and moving just at face value and nothing more.

Patrick Heusinger, Cotter Smith, Patrick Breen

Patrick Breen, Maddie Corman, Connie Ray

But no matter how well-written or directed, the play would be nothing without its aforementioned ensemble, all of who tread the difficult waters of taking sides in arguments about religion, self-awareness, sexuality and a variety of sub-issues. And to a person, they are perfectly cast and are a true ensemble, each giving and taking. There are no scenery chewers.

Sean Dugan has the most enigmatic (to me, anyway) role in the play. He is there from the first moment, and yet you know nothing about who he is or how he fits in this disjointed family until well into the second act, and when you do find out, it is amazing he stays. (I’m trying to avoid plot spoilers here.) And it is to Mr. Dugan’s credit that he maintains our interest in his character throughout the play, even if we might like him in the end a little less than we thought we might.

Connie Ray and Cotter Smith are Luke’s divorced parents – an interesting detail, considering that they are both fundamentalist Christians. Of course, in this play that also means they are more – he is a pompous, self-righteous, controlling bastard with a new trophy wife; she is a recovering pill-popper, dangerously close to slipping. The minute they reunite, you understand their prior marriage instantly; she is in constant clean up the mess mode, and he trounces through life like he is the God he professes to worship. Theirs is a very black and white, right and wrong world, despite the fact that both are decidedly shades of grey at best. Ms. Ray finds the balance between victim and trying to be strong mother very well, and her cathartic scene in act two is a highlight. Mr. Smith has the unenviable job of being a hateful bastard all while being likeable enough to believe his final moments on stage. Trust me, those moments are a doozy; the image created by Mr. Smith and a certain cast mate is stunning, heartfelt and devastating.

Maddie Corman, as the “fag hag” best friend of Luke and Adam, also has a deceptively difficult role to play. She is, as a fag hag would be, a sounding board for the boys, a tireless supporter and, of course, hilariously funny. In fact, Ms. Corman gets the lion’s share of the evening’s many sustained belly laughs. But she also has created a complex modern woman – one who fills the lonely void with her gay friends, multiple yoga groups and immersion into whatever the current urban trends for self-help are. I found myself thinking quite a bit about how her character would deal with the aftermath of the play’s events. Like everything else about the play, that could go one of several ways.

Patrick Heusinger and Patrick Breen

The central couple, Luke and Adam, is played by Patrick Heusinger and Patrick Breen, respectively, and their easy interplay with each other as actors makes their attraction and closeness completely believable even when their beliefs and actions should/could easily keep them apart. Both actors give easy, yet complex performances that are fine for their detail and for the broader ideas they represent. And both are superb in their roles. I’m sure there are many audience members who struggle with their attraction in the first place – Heusinger is young, buff, and extremely confident in that sexy way men like him are, while Breen is older, slight, self-conscious, and rather bookish. Add to that that their religious beliefs are polar opposites and that their arguments are deep and wounding and since neither will bend, you can’t help but wonder why they stay together. Luke won't bend out of fear of losing his faith or his patner; Adam won't bend out of fear of losing himself or his partner to something so big he can't fight it.  It cannot be simply the sex, which is only peripherally discussed, and the only time we see the two in bed together, one is curled up holding the comatose other. Oh, they show affection and are believable throughout, but it is a relief that we aren’t seeing their sexuality, actually. It would muddy the muddy waters.

Neither character is particularly sympathetic - both have their sweet moments and both are completely frustrating, making it difficult to choose sides. That is, it is difficult to choose until we reach, at the end of the play, the moment that started the whole thing to begin with. At that point, you find yourself forgiving both for their faults and resolutely rooting for them to survive. As my mother often says, “don’t let your last words to a loved one be hurtful words. You never know when, or if, you can make up for it.”

I haven’t seen enough of this season’s other plays to make any sweeping comparisons, but I can say that Next Fall is one of the most enjoyable and sad plays I’ve seen in a long time, played by an ideal cast. That it makes you really think is bonus. This play will really stay with you.

Grade: A+

(Photos by Carol Rosegg, except top, by Sarah Kulwich)

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