There's a lot going on beneath the surface of "Next Fall," the fast-moving, engaging play by Geoffrey Nauffts that opened the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis Studio last night at the Grandel Theatre. But it throws the audience a bunch of questions, some easy, some hard, some solved, some left unanswered, just hanging like Charlie Brown's kite, somewhere in a tree, swaying in the wind.
The comedy-drama, nominated for a Tony as best play last spring, involves two gay men in a relationship, the parents of one, the employer of another and a former lover, with religion a constant intruder. They meet in a hospital waiting room after one of the young men has been hit by a taxi and is fighting for his life. So we get an over-arching question by Adam (Jeffrey Kuhn): If the men who beat Matthew Shepard to death accept Christ while he does not, will they go to Heaven while he goes to Hell? Luke (Colin Hanlon) holds for a long pause, finally, softly, says, "Yes."
But that's not Nauffts' first question. That honor goes to the title. Where is Naufft pointing us, leading us with "Next Fall"? Does he refer to the season of the year when an unfamiliar chill in the air brings a shiver, when vegetation shrivels and dies, when some animals huddle in caves and hibernate through the winter ahead? Or does he have John Milton on his mind, or John Bunyan, who dealt with the spiritual fall of man? He refers to Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," so he must know of Milton and Bunyan.
The play's action shifts back and forth from the men's apartment to a hospital waiting room where Luke's friends gather while he fights for his life after being hit by a taxi. The friends meet Luke's parents there. In the apartment, we follow their relationship.
And in the second act, while Adam and Luke add another chapter to their never-ending argument over Luke's beliefs and Adam's increasing resentment of Luke's active Christianity, praying not just before meals, but after sex, a habit that is sending atheist Adam round the bend. And Adam, fighting for self-control, asks Luke "Are you ever going to love me more than him?" Of course, when Adam speaks, we do not know if Him will be capitalized, as in God, or remain small, as in his earthly father (a terrific Keith Jochim).
Nauffts sets up this bifurcated line when he has Adam ask Luke how far along in college his younger brother is. This is set up in an earlier discussion when Luke promises to come out to his family and speak honestly of his relationship with Adam as soon as the brother goes off to college. Luke has said nothing and brother Ben now is a sophomore.
These are valid questions for a playwright to ask an audience, and takes nothing from the play when he does not answer them.
Still, they rattled around in my head, causing admiration for Naffts' sublety even as a fine, taut first act slid somewhere between soap opera and melodrama as the play went on. Coma scenes and families meeting in hospital waiting rooms are overused devices, but then again, the confrontations have to take place somewhere.
Kuhn is outstanding as Adam, his hypochondria showing Woody Allen touches, but his love for Luke is deep and real, his courage in coming out very strong, and blessedly, he's not an actor. He's working in a candle shop, but eventually becomes a teacher, and his pride in his new profession is something special. Hanlon is less effective as Luke. He's certainly a hunk, but he's kind of empty. However, as a person with nothing but faith in a higher power and the hope for an eventual journey to a happy place, he's extremely two-dimensional, and possesses the ability to insult every other religion without realizing he's doing it
It's a treat to see Ben Nordstrom as an actor in a real play. No songs, no dances. He's Brandon, rather an odd duck, a hippie who went into business and became wealthy. He's carrying a Bible in the opening scene, he wears a suit and tie, but we really don't learn much about him until midway in the second act. Nordstrom is excellent, serving as something of a balance wheel between Adam and Luke.
I've watched Jochim for many years, back to the days when David Frank was artistic director and the company was almost a real repertory group. A fine actor with the ability to play many roles, he was around for one of the Rep's low points, "Frankenstein," in 1979, and a high one a few years ago as Richard Nixon in "Frost/Nixon." As Butch, Luke's father and a wealthy Southern redneck, he's solid, but there's not enough depth to the character. The same holds true for both women. Holly (Marnye Young), a self-described "fag hag," is friends with both Adam and Luke, runs the candle shop where Adam works. She also sells "totchkes," Yiddish for knick-knacks and other useless stuff that always bears the name of the place where it was bought, from Amsterdam to Zanzibar. I used to work for someone who pronounced them "chockys."
Susan Greenhill is Arlene, almost is a caricature of a flighty Southern woman, a flibberty-gibbit if you will. She and Butch have been divorced for 20 years, and one can easily understand why. She loves her son, and she likes the fact that he's in a Jewish hospital because "they make good doctors." A Jewish chapel makes sure we understand what is going on.
Seth Gordon, the Rep's new associate artistic director, makes his directorial debut and shows nice pacing, but could have received the same results without the Southern schtick. With the action shifting forward and backward in time and space, it's easy to know where we are, from Brian Sidney Bembridge's sets of a hospital waiting room and an apartment, but it sometimes takes several seconds to know when we are. This is a problem that never was a problem when theater programs set the scenes, but that seems to have become a lost skill, and it's not fair to make a theater patron guess, especially one who attends only several shows a year. Rusty Wandall's sound design included some effective music, and Lou Bird's costumes are simple and proper, but did Kuhn have to wear the same shoes throughout?