Produced off Broadway last summer by the Naked Angels troupe, “Next Fall,” a first play by the actor Geoffrey Nauffts, bravely arrives on the main stem with few of the accoutrements that help ensure success in that neighborhood. True, one of its above-the-title producers, the pop star Elton John, has a famous name. But none of the six cast members do. Nor can this comedy’s immense appeal be summed up in a sexy tag line.
Still, you would hope New Yorkers would be eager to embrace a play that so eloquently celebrates humor as the great urban defense system. Most of the characters in “Next Fall” — which portrays a gay couple wrestling with issues big enough to be called cosmic — are as quick with a quip as the denizens of a zippy sitcom. Yet as portrayed by a wonderfully human cast, directed by Sheryl Kaller, there’s nothing synthetic about them. Their doubts and pain are very real, and the laughter they elicit comes more from the heart than the belly.
There was a time when American plays like this — or at least works that aspired to this level — were as common on Broadway as street lamps. (In recent years popular comedies here have usually arrived with a British passport.) During the 1960s and ’70s Neil Simon scored hit after hit with shows about anxious Manhattanites under siege. But Mr. Simon’s comic style was soon appropriated and mechanized by television, and the perception settled in that it was easier and cheaper to turn on the tube than shell out at the box office. And the mantle of neurotic Manhattan’s poet laureate passed to Woody Allen, whose films offered a hipper variation on the same sensibility.
You can trace elements of both Mr. Simon’s and Mr. Allen’s work in “Next Fall.” Its central figure, Adam (Patrick Breen), is a gravely jokey hypochondriac in the mold of Mr. Allen’s cinematic alter egos. Mr. Breen is also (like Mr. Allen) a nebbishy looking guy. But his natural wit has serious sex appeal, and you’re not surprised that (like Mr. Allen) he winds up with a real babe.
The essential difference is that the babe in this case is a man. And on the surface Luke (Patrick Heusinger) would hardly seem to be the man for Adam. He’s much younger, for one thing, and not nearly as sharp or as literate. But most important Luke is a devout Christian, who sees homosexuality as a sin and nonbelievers as future inhabitants of hell. This understandably perplexes and alarms the agnostic Adam. Yet by the play’s end Adam and Luke will have stuck it out together for more than four years.
This sounds like an easy sitcom set-up, just waiting to have the title “Another Odd Couple” slapped onto it. Yet while it features a host of quotably clever lines, “Next Fall” is no cousin to “Will & Grace.” Mr. Nauffts has a gift for making breezy repartee sound spontaneous, and that’s what first engages us.
But once we’re hooked, “Next Fall” gently pulls us into deeper waters. (Seeing it for the second time I realized how this production sets those depths churning from the beginning, in the silences that exist between the forced, cheery talk.) Suddenly you’re in the middle of a serious work that turns out to have more on its mind than could be found in the collected works of Yasmina Reza, Broadway’s comic playwright du jour.
You could say that “Next Fall” is about religious faith, and how even in everyday life it separates people as much as it unites them. But the play doesn’t wear its theme like a merit badge. Instead it considers how the need to believe in something beyond other people tests relationships — among lovers, friends and family members.
Mr. Nauffts has created a finely graded scale of the forms and degrees of such faith within his cast of characters, all conceived without judgment and much compassion: Adam’s best friend, Holly (Maddie Corman), a single woman with a fondness for gay men; Butch (Cotter Smith), Luke’s fundamentalist, manly father from Florida; Arlene (Connie Ray), Luke’s mother, a reformed wild woman; and Brandon (Sean Dugan), a friend who fell out of Luke’s life when Adam showed up.
In theory the characters line up in camps, with Adam and Holly wryly waving the banner of agnosticism, while the others toe the line of a literal-minded Christianity. But it gradually becomes clear that no one believes in exactly the same way, that, like it or not, religion is as individual and ingrained as a fingerprint. Having brought its characters together in a New York hospital by a serious accident, “Next Fall” alternates between flashback and present-tense scenes to examine those differences and to consider the leaps of faith that any relationship requires.
“Next Fall” has achieved the tricky and necessary feat of retaining its subtlety while increasing its clarity in making the transfer to Broadway. Wilson Chin (sets) and Jeff Croiter (lighting) have scaled up their designs to fill a larger house without strain. Ms. Kaller’s direction is, if anything, more fluid and organic.
The performers, all original cast members, have now moved into their characters as if they had taken lifelong leases on them. They are, to a one, as big as they need they to be, without ever sacrificing complexity. Seen on the deeper stage of the Helen Hayes, they look a little lonelier and more vulnerable than they did off Broadway, which helps to make “Next Fall” the funniest heartbreaker in town.
By Geoffrey Nauffts; directed by Sheryl Kaller; sets by Wilson Chin; costumes by Jess Goldstein; lighting by Jeff Croiter; music and sound by John Gromada; executive producer, Susan Mindell. Presented by Elton John and David Furnish, Barbara Manocherian, Richard Willis, Tom Smedes, Carole L. Haber/Chase Mishkin, Ostar, Anthony Barrile, Michael Palitz, Bob Boyett, James Spry/Catherine Schreiber, Probo Productions and Roy Furman, in association with Naked Angels. At the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th Street, Manhattan; (800) 432-7250. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
WITH: Patrick Breen (Adam), Maddie Corman (Holly), Sean Dugan (Brandon), Patrick Heusinger (Luke), Connie Ray (Arlene) and Cotter Smith (Butch).