Next Fall at Jungle Theater
At the beginning of one scene late in Next Fall, the Tony-nominated play by Geoffrey Nauffts now playing at the Jungle Theater, we see two men sharing a bed. One is asleep, seemingly content for the first time in the show. The other is hooked up to an array of medical equipment that is keeping him alive following a brutal accident.
The bliss is interrupted by the victim's brash father, who, either unaware or in denial about his son's love life, bursts in like a bull in a china shop, wondering what's going on.
At the center of Next Fall sits a simple but infinitely thorny issue: How can two people with diametrically opposed views not just coexist but fall deeply, madly in love?
Adam and Luke meet at a party in New York, hit it off, and start to make a life together. Adam is older, neurotic, a failed writer working at a candle store. Luke is younger, more assured, a struggling actor working as a caterer, and then in the same candle shop. Adam is also very out and an avowed atheist. Luke sticks to the closet in regard to his family—partially because he's a fundamentalist Christian who thinks he's "sinning" every time he has sex.
At its best, Nauffts's script confronts these issues head on, either with comedic comments (Adam uses jokes and sarcasm to hide his discomfort) or, more rarely, with heartfelt exchanges. The latter are cut off by circumstance, as the play is set in a hospital waiting room, where Adam, two close friends, and Luke's parents gather after the young man is critically injured in an accident.
Cutting between the tragic present and key moments from the past five years, we see the relationship between the two grow, while still never getting to the heart of the two central conflicts—Adam's inability to accept Luke's faith and Luke's inability to finally come out to his family.
It's not clear if the two issues are really equal, even in Nauffts's script. After all, plenty of congregations accept gay relationships, and many more aren't biblical literalists like Luke. Since Luke is so unshakeable in his faith, we never get much insight into what drives it or even what brought him to the contradictions he lives with every day. In comparison, coming out would seem to be the simplest of tasks, but one Luke stubbornly refuses to take up.
It helps that two terrific performances are at the center of the play, with Garry Geiken (Adam) and newcomer Neil Skoy (Luke) showing us the immediate chemistry between the two characters and the gulf that separates them to the very end. Even when the two are fighting, you can sense an attraction that goes much deeper than religion or politics—an attraction that keeps them together no matter the conflicts.
Sometimes the script does let them down—using a closet packed with the relationship's debris while Luke tries to "de-gay" the apartment in advance of his father's visit is just a bit too on point—but the performers work through these hitches and give us a real relationship.
Nauffts is more successful exploring the anxiety and grief felt by all the characters as they wait by Luke's side for a sign of recovery or, as it becomes clearer throughout the play, for the end. The stress on the other five characters is obvious, and how they react to it helps to give them extra depth. Interestingly, all of them are able to call on some faith, lapsed or not, to aid them—except for Adam, who is left alone in his pure skepticism.
The balance of the cast puts in solid performances, especially Stephen Yoakam as patriarch Butch, who knows much more about his son's "lifestyle" than he is letting on. The simmering conflict between him and Adam provides the strongest undercurrent and also gives us the evening's most surprising and touching moment.
The script moves with great energy and efficiency—it's much like a situation comedy, without the happy ending—and director Joel Sass never lets that wane, be it in the comedic set pieces, the fight, or the long night waiting for the final news.
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