“Next Fall” at the Jungle Theater

Next Fall - Publicity Photo

The Jungle Theater’s spring offering deals with one of those issues that lurks on the fringes of our consciousness – except for those who live every day with the question, “What does it mean to be gay and Christian?” Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts tackles this worthy subject via a series of flashbacks that reconstruct the lives of the agnostic and older Adam (Gary Geiken), and the younger and Christian Luke (Neal Skoy), who even after the five-year relationship can’t bring himself to come out to his family.

With a 2010 Tony Award nomination for Best Play and Best Director, and an Outer Critics Circle Award for Best New American Play, the play has impressive credentials. Nauffts has a gift for snappy dialogue and his tackling this difficult issue is laudable. The problem for me was that it sacrificed most of the core emotional content to the jokes, which after awhile just couldn’t be funny in the face of the character’s deeply serious dilemmas.

Luke is hit by a car and the extended “family,” including Adam; their employer, Holly (Andrea Leap); his mother (Maggie Bearmon Pistner), who had been mostly absent while he was growing up; Butch (Stephen Yoakam), his redneck dad; and Luke’s friend, Brandon (Sasha Andreev) gather at the hospital to await his fate.

Just letting the underlying tension inherent in this set-up play out would be enough dramatic action for one play, but instead the playwright seemed compelled to cover everything of significance since Adam and Luke first met—in the style of a TV sitcom: set up the joke, deliver the laugh line, repeat a few times and go to a commercial (in this case, a scene change). Unfortunately, this style kept the characters from truly engaging with each other until well into the play—the second act, in fact–—as if the story wanted to go there but couldn’t because they had to play the laughs.

Even as Luke presumably fights for his life offstage, his mother (his mother!) prattles on about herself and her past with Luke’s dad. Brandon says almost nothing, and Holly chats about little of substance. Nobody in that waiting room seemed emotionally connected to the young man—their loved one—who so desperately needed their strength. They were all much more interested in talking about themselves and, like a sitcom, talked without really listening and responding with any feeling to each other.

More puzzling is Luke and Adam’s relationship. Adam is drawn as a self-absorbed malcontent who tends to hypochondria and can be caustic and rude. What is it that Luke, who is so optimistic by nature, sees in him, other than Luke’s stated preference for older men?  When Adam and Luke have a fight, in Holly’s presence, Luke storms out and Adam and Holly just keep up their banter, with no expression of concern for Luke. Other than in a sitcom, do people really do this?

The show gets laughs because it hits on so much of what is familiar to gay couples, in particular – the very premise that powers sitcoms. The play loses some of us, at least, by not being genuine about the overarching message: we are not gay or straight, Christian or agnostic; we are people who need each other’s love – unconditionally.

This production, however, has some powerfully redeeming qualities. Yoakam’s portrayal of Butch would be at the top of the list. Butch’s staunch denial of what he must know about his son, and the stoic love that finally overpowers him at the end, fires this play from beginning to end. This is a character that we can truly care about. At the final, terrible and enormously satisfying moment, Geiken’s Adam comes through for Butch, but strangely he still hangs on to that detached persona.

Director Joel Sass also designed the set, which required seemingly dozens of changes, accomplished brilliantly with subtle adjustments in set pieces, for the most part, and dynamic lighting. I watched every set change because it was just so interesting. More to the point, the set and the approach to the play were wonderfully wedded; Sass is really good at this.

Pistner created a charming Arlene out of the character’s serious foibles. The scene in the hospital “chapel” as she comes to terms with the play’s final reality is truly beautiful, though I can’t imagine any mother leaving her child’s side at that moment. And one couldn’t help but be taken with Skoy’s affable Luke; who wouldn’t care about such a sweet and likeable guy?

Which is why, I think, the play has appeal. We really do care about what happens to this young man, and because he loves the other characters, we come to care about them, too.

Next Fall runs through May 22.

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