NEXT FALLby Geoffrey Nauffts
Dallas Theater Center
Directed by Kevin Moriarty
Assistant Director - Tre Garrett
Set Designer - John Arnone
Costume Designer - Thomas Charles LeGally
Lighting Designer - Natalie Robin
Sound Designer - Bruce Richardson
Stage Manager - Lara Maerz
Lynn Blackburn - Holly
Candy Buckley - Arlene
Kieran Connelly - Butch
Terry Martin - Adam
Lee Trull - Brandon
Steven Michael Walters - Luke
Reviewed Performance: 4/20/2012
Reviewed by Mary L. Clark, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Stenciled on the lobby wall leading into the theatre, and in the playbill, was this quote and one from 1 Corinthians 15:52 about the end of days. Apparently included in Geoffrey Nauffts' script, these two thought extremes make up only the outer shell of his play, Next Fall. Using labels of Christianity and homose*uality, Nauffts left his play open to discussion, introspection, and either conviction or clarification of our own beliefs.
There seems to be a consensus going around that a play about a gay couple is provocative and controversial. For over forty years now, homose*ual characters have had major and minor roles in plays, both contemporary and classic, as well as several musicals. Even here in Dallas, with the Bible beltline cinched right through the middle, several theatre companies routinely produce shows featuring gays, lesbians and transe*uals.
But the fact that I have classified a majority of Dallas' religious beliefs against the number of homose*ually-themed plays done here, or named different aspects of homose*uality, and the fact that I have to use an asterisk in these words says we all still have a ways to go coming to terms with and then releasing labels, classifications and unyielding beliefs. For me, that is the theme of Next Fall.
Now I'm not so na?ve as to stalwartly insist all of humanity should or could co-exist without some identification or declaration. If that was so, we would all wander through life with little interaction or purpose.
Both Nauffts and the Dallas Theater Center, in producing Next Fall, have chosen two distinctly individual aspects of our world - homose*uality and fundamentalist Christianity - to ask questions about true commitment both in relationships and in faith.
A refreshingly open, contemporary romance story, the play revolves around a gay couple whose relationship reaches the ultimate test when one suffers a horrific accident.
Through a series of flashbacks we see the beginnings, the adjustments, the concern and commitment of two people from opposite ends of the religious belief spectrum.
Luke is a young actor living in Manhattan and struggling to balance his lifestyle with deeply-ingrained Southern Christian values. Enter Adam who struggles more with "getting older" aches and pain and his career choices than any lifestyle or belief issues. Raised with little to no religious upbringing, Adam's beliefs are more the "never thought about it much" kind rather than those of a devout Atheist. In the flashbacks we see the roles reverse as Luke starts to question and Adam becomes more fervent.
Through all the seriousness of the scenario, Next Fall had much humor and the audience laughed readily. Adam's questioning of Luke's wishy-washy reconciliation of his life choices led to some pretty sharp-witted comedic verbal sword play.
Next Fall places itself mainly in the waiting room of a Manhattan hospital where Luke has been sent. Enter his divorced parents - Butch, whose feet are cemented in fundamentalism, and Arlene, his former wife and the mother who left when Luke was five, who is more open-minded and free thinking. Also waiting for news of Luke's condition, a friend of Adam and now Luke, Holly's devotion is to Adam and his needs as his long-time girl/friend. But first to arrive at the hospital is Brandon, a former friend of Luke's who shares a deep religious connection but cannot make a connection between his se*uality and love.
And it is what's not said between family and friends that lights the conflict fuse. Tension is palpable and emotions get pretty raw as Luke's inevitability looms.
I will readily admit John Arnone's set design choices confused me. Understanding the set represented the hospital waiting room, it was only after seeing the entire play, talking to both the stage manager intern sitting beside me and Director Kevin Moriarty that I realized Arnone took inspiration from a Manhattan hospital (Mt. Sinai) to make his color choices. Bold blues and true reds were painted on the starkly modern, clean-lined walls.
Two bright red swinging doors with portal windows were predominately placed upstage center. Four other red doors and two hallways going offstage aided in transitioning to the apartment rooftop where Luke and Adam met, Adam's place, Luke's apartment, a coffee shop. With a shift here and there, a couch, armchair and two ottomans of neutral taupe functioned as the furniture in all the locations.
The waiting room is where everyone except Luke comes at some point - it is the only place they all meet. In many theatre productions the set is a separate entity and the lighting is only used to illuminate it. Natalie Robin's design went well beyond mere illumination and became an integral partner to the set design. Using eight gobos, seven custom glass gobos, she created these small blocks, almost pixels of light that elevated up the red and blue walls to represent the skyscrapers and one lone distant rooftop water tower that enveloped the hospital in the heart of Manhattan. With the use of oodles of gels and gel scrollers, the skyscrapers dimmed or faded in and out imperceptibly with each scene change. Adding a semi-circle of fluorescent tubes to the outer edge of the light grid lent the waiting room a sickly blue, clinically sterile aura.
Thomas Charles LeGalley's costumes were casual or business contemporary and each fully supported their character's personality. Both wearing suits, Brandon's was impeccably tailored while Butch's was ill fit and disheveled, paralleling his volatile emotions. Arlene wore earth tones and a long cardigan sweater she kept wrapping around her like a comfort blanket. Her mid-back length hair was constantly moved or tossed back, denoting her free spirit nature and nervousness. Holly blended boho chic to reflect both her trendy business and desire to remain youthful.
Adam and Luke were walking contrasts, clothing-wise. Neat and clean choices in trousers, striped shirts and pullover sweaters, sometimes draped over his shoulder, marked Adam as safe and conservative. When not in catering waiter black and white, Luke's clothing choices were usually sloppy muscle tanks and loose shorts, comfortable and noncommittal, as though he had other things to worry about.
Bruce Richardson, yet once again, created a tremendously effective sound design that both soothed and shocked. From city traffic noise to ticking clock, he kept the audience fully aware of the passage of time and the importance of each moment. Working hand in hand with some of the light cues, full blackouts came with a car crash and horn blare.
Intermission house lights blasted on with a loud whirring/"whomping" sound as though someone pulled a huge generator switch up.
Everything was heightened, sound-wise, yet never felt false. It's a sign of great artistry when sound seems intentional and not merely an effect cue.
Director Kevin Moriarty magnificently solved any possible confusion the audience might incur with flashbacks. As time shifted back and forward, actors for the next scene entered, sat or stood with and validated the presence of those onstage before they exited. There was as much said in those silent moments of human observation than in many of the actual scenes - simply brilliant.
The assembling of this particular cast was truly inspired. Using local and former local actors, for most it was as if their roles were written for them. In less scenes than others, Lee Trull as Brandon made his beliefs and choices perfectly clear with little emotion and very little actual human contact with the others. Lynn Blackburn played Holly with a quality of insistence that everything and everyone must be alright. That type of character could easily be downplayed onstage but Blackburn became the connecting force for all the characters.
Arlene, on the other hand, wasn't connecting with much of anything, struggling with demons of the prescription kind. For most of the play the marvelous Candy Buckley played her like many women today who have a lost marriage or lost purpose, numbed chemically and emotionally. The pathos was complete when life shook Luke's mom to reality and the choices she needed to make. In a role that might remain one-dimensional, Buckley portrayed Arlene's full metamorphosis and levitated the character out of her own mental and emotional coma. With clarity and warmth, she introduced the audience to the beautifully strong, compassionate woman Arlene had inside her all along.
At the complete opposite spectrum was Butch, whom Kieran Connelly portrayed. Explosive, demonstrative, overly assured in his faith and values is an understatement for this man. Connelly played Butch hard core all the way, mistrusting everything and everyone but himself and God. When Butch could no longer hold up his thick walls of misguided hate, fear and beliefs, his catharsis was possibly the singular most emotional moment I have seen onstage - and Connelly's entire performance was masterful.
The characterization of Luke left me confused and questioning. It was not the portrayal by Steven Michael Walters that bothered me but Nauffts' dialogue for him. An easy going young man from a strict Christian upbringing now lives openly gay to everyone but his parents. He recites prayers and his bible lessons rote, says he believes it all but cannot explain any of it to his companion/lover Adam. While a beautifully gentle soul, Luke was reticent in his convictions and demeanor and had no character substance. Walters enacted Luke in similar fashion, being encumbered by the script. He deftly understood his character, and Luke's love for God and Adam was apparent, but any realistic conflict between a devout Christian and an ardent non-believer was diluted by a lack of transition on the character's part.
Terry Martin's character Adam was obviously the key that unlocked Pandora's Box on identity, prejudices, hate, faith, friendship, relationship, commitment. Martin, and Moriarty, knew not to lean on stereotype, displaying Adam simply as a gay man with insecurities, indecision, and no concrete definition of his core values. He only ridiculed and belittled what he didn't understand or had a connection to, but he did have a connection and love for loyal friends and a true love for Luke. Except for his humorous outbursts of hypochondria, Martin played Adam subtly and convincingly.
My job is to comment on the play I saw and not give commentary on the wide-spread subjects brought to light in Next Fall. Pro-choice, abortion, addiction, life-choices, religion, organ donation, stem cell research were mentioned or brought up during this play. Dallas Theater Center boldly stepped up to instigate discussion with their production. The After Talk surprisingly and wonderfully kept most of the opening night subscriber audience in their seats. Most questions and comments dealt with religion, conversion, and the difference between Southern (Texas) and East Coast ideology. Moriarty spoke of the parallel between the play's themes and our own country's widely different beliefs, personal badges and labeling of others. Next Fall went beyond belief and labels to emphasize relationships and validation that what you have to say matters.
How refreshing to have a theatrical production not only be entertaining, humorous and uplifting but also the emphasis of meaningful conversation and discussion well after the houselights go up and we walk out the theatre doors.
I tend to believe as actor Walters does when he said, "The major conflict is - can two people who disagree have a meaningful relationship?"
Lately, the universe has been sending me "pay attention reminders" that it's about human connection, the human to human moment. In the words of the song my mind kept singing as the actors took their bows -
"And in the end, the love you take
Is equal to the love you make."
- Paul McCartney
Note: DTC has a study guide to go with this play and on the back page it says, "If today's performance has sparked questions that may be difficult to ask, or you need help finding more information on the topics addressed in Next Fall, you can visit these websites. There is a list of four organizations and their site addresses. You can go online to DTC's site, click on the Next Fall photo, find the study guide link and download it in its entirety.
Dallas Theater Center
at Kalita Humphreys Theater
3636 Turtle Creek Blvd.
Dallas, TX 75219
Performances run only through May 6th
Tuesday ? Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday ? Saturday at 8:00pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm and Sunday, April 27th at 7:30 pm
Tickets are $15 - $95 and are available online at www.DallasTheaterCenter.org or by phone at 214-880-0202.