Theater Review: “Next Fall”
Photo by John MacLellan.
Oh sweet baby Jesus, Richmond Triangle Players’ newest offering “Next Fall,” written by actor-turned-playwright Geoffrey Nauffts, is absolutely bound to be a hit this season and so immaculate that you better not miss this show before it ascends back into heaven.
And “Hallelujah, Hallelujah!” it’s under the touching direction of Anna Johnson, artistic director of Cadence Theatre Company, who has infused the production with her signature charm and compassion, finally allowing the Acts of Faith Festival to “wrestle with some stuff,” as RTP managing director Phil Crosby humorously expresses before the start of the performance.
While Nauffts’ tragicomedy broadly illustrates the contrast between Christian evangelicalism and urban agnosticism, he specifically paints the steep religious differences between Luke (Denis Riva) and Adam (Chris O’Neill), a gay Manhattanite couple, in loving, but often stressful colors. However, Johnson smartly imbues their spiritual conflict with delicacy. Thoughtful and seldom preachy, their religious arguments become faint scenery supporting their poignant love story.
But suddenly their two irreconcilable belief systems are brought face-to-face when Luke winds up in the ICU after a horrific cab accident. Thanks to scenic designer Chris Raintree’s finely adjustable set, this Tony-nominated drama shifts between the present in a green colored hospital waiting room and the five-year period leading up to the present around Manhattan.
Projecting a gorgeous, luminous skyline of New York City against the set’s background, lighting designer Andrew Bonniwell situates Adam and Luke’s first encounter upon a rooftop overlooking the city. They banter as gay men do about being fat in flirtatious ways, while the sounds of taxis under John Gromada’s sound design honk and beep in the distant streets below.
Love blossoms. But in his apartment, Adam realizes that Luke is more than a well buttoned-up cater waiter, who pursues acting in his spare time. Luke prays before eating breakfast (and after sex), which startles Adam, and admits that he, oh boy, believes in God. He identifies simply as a “Christian” and thinks that all believers, even the most deplorable, are saved through faith in Christ. Adam struggles to understand the contradiction between Luke’s sexuality and religion.
True, the play exudes an impression that Nauffts has overly generalized Christian beliefs, and you’re left wondering why Luke continues to follow a conservative Christian faith—he’s so openly gay already—when there are liberal alternatives that would include him without question.
Still, Adam and Luke move in together in a cramped apartment, stylishly decorated with a gay man’s sensibility. The bookshelves are lined with Truman Capote and Stephen Sondheim books, the cabinets are stocked with dainty teacups, and the bedroom houses a portrait of the bare buttocks of a nude model. All of this is quickly “de-gayed” in a zany scene when Luke’s homophobic father, Butch (Barry Pruitt), arrives almost out of the blue. But flash-forward to the hospital waiting room and Butch shows he just might experience a change of heart.
Costume designer Holly Sullivan distinguishes Adam and Luke with careful attention to each character’s personality. She dresses Luke in well-pressed pants and ironed shirts, making him sensible and well anchored in his beliefs, but ensures that Adam’s clothes are always untucked, matching his flustered appearance with his neurotic, hypochondriac temperament.
Riva’s Luke and O’Neill’s Adam appear naturally made for each other as they tickle their religious differences with laughter and seriousness. They may be divided by faith, but these two are certainly united in love. Riva embodies Luke with a passionate, evangelical perkiness, while O’Neill individualizes Adam with the right amount of nebbishy, secular disillusionment.
Matthew Mitchell is quiet and effective in his role as Brandon, Luke’s friend who, according to Adam, appears sexually ambiguous. Georgia Rogers Farmer is effortlessly organic and comedic as Holly, Adam’s colleague. And Pruitt as Butch broods with a strong veneer of manliness.
Undoubtedly, Dawn A. Westbrook stands out as Arlene, Luke’s unkempt mother. Westbrook’s provincial comedic timing is perfectly spot on—much of her humor centers on her bewilderment with Judaism (the hospital is Jewish-affiliated)—and her scene in the Jewish chapel (Bonniwell dolefully lights the back wall with an ornate Star of David encrusted around a gold menorah) with Adam hits deeply mournful chords.
But not all is sacred and ominous in this production, there’s enough humor to fill a cathedral. “Are fag hags allowed in heaven?” Holly flippantly asks. Let’s sure hope so.
“Next Fall” runs through March 17 at Richmond Triangle Players. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.richmondtriangleplayers.com/
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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