Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

What's Love Got To Do With It?

November 04, 2011

Geoffrey Nauffts and James Wolk Photo:Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2011
At the heart of Geoffrey Nauffts’ play Next Fall which is currently receiving its West Coast Premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, is real-life premise worth considering. How do couples, and gay men in particular, process big conflicts over issues of faith in their relationships? This may seem like a rather rarefied concern, but it resonated with a broader audience enough that the show received a Broadway run and eventual Tony nominations in 2010 and continues to live on. In the play, Adam, a forty-something struggling neurotic agnostic writer, meet-cutes Luke, a significantly younger would-be actor and fundamentalist Christian. They fall in love, and spend the next four years working out “the Jesus thing” until tragedy strikes and Luke’s fear of coming out to his homophobic family takes on greater significance. And yet despite the contemporary currency of the questions Nauffts raises, Next Fall never really achieves all it could due to some rather pedestrian scenarios and dialog that more often than not rely more on cliche than insight.

The play is best when the focus in on Adam and Luke and the story of how they struggle over Luke’s expressions of faith in the relationship. Unfortunately the story is cluttered with a rather predictable framing devise with Luke being injured in a car accident and all the family and friends gathering at the hospital with the romance unfolding in flashbacks as all the dramatic tension is funneled into a by-the-numbers hospital drama. The audience learns what they can about the lovers through flashback where Luke is played by the devastatingly handsome and believable James Wolk. Adam, is played in this run by the play’s author, Nauffts, which in practice cuts both ways. Nauffts certainly looks the part, but I often found his Adam overly removed and ambivalent in moments of the highest emotional intensity. Adam appears almost nonchalant about his lovers' landing in the ICU and is paradoxically more worked up about the potential conflicts with Luke's family and friends in the waiting room. There’s a clutter of characters including a female best friend Holly (Betsy Brandt who has a great speech at the end), a bigoted father (Jeff Fahey), and an almost completely irrelevant repressed gay best friend Brandon (Ken Barnett). Most of these characters do little more than provide excuses for exposition and can make the show tiresome at times despite Sheryl Kaller's clean direction. One bright light among the supporting cast is Lesley Ann Warren who plays Luke’s long-estranged mother. She packs real star quality here and gives the most nuanced and wholly convincing performance in the show.

But Next Fall is still a play worth considering for what it has to say about the way gay men live now. The play is aware of its past, and the references to predecessors like Harvey Firestein’s Torch Song Trilogy and any number of AIDS-related plays of the 80s and 90s. The play is also a fitting reminder of the great work of the Geffen Playhouse’s Producing Director and Hollywood legend, Gil Cates, who died on Monday, two days before the show opened. Cates has always maintained the Geffen’s commitment to bringing out some of the best new and recent work from New York to Los Angeles audiences and he’ll be greatly missed.

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