A faith compromised is an odd beast indeed. Take Luke, the young, beguiling object of affection in Round House Theatre’s new production of Geoffrey Nauffts’ Tony-nominated Next Fall, as performed by the exuberant Chris Dinolfo. Luke, a Tallahassee native and a struggling actor in New York, is both gay and a devout Christian. He hasn’t come out to his conservative parents, and you can sense watching him go through life that every day brings a plethora of internal dysfunction. Because Luke is particularly religious, to the point where he feels the need to pray after sex like a knee-jerk sin-purging, one can only imagine how he can keep up such a practice.
Unfortunately that’s all we can do, mostly, is imagine. Luke’s not the protagonist of Next Fall. That would instead be his much older live-in boyfriend Adam, played by Tom Story, whom we think we’ve got a good handle on after an early rooftop scene – pithy, neurotic, a non-starter. (Obviously a play centered around a genuine non-starter probably wouldn’t be much to look at, but there aren’t many other ways to describe a self-proclaimed “forty-year-old candle salesman.”) It’s to Story’s great credit that, alternating between playful banter and painful self-loathing, he sneaks unexpected pathos into the bouts of irritating eccentricities, lending Adam more depth than the character as written by Nauffts deserves.
Director Mark Ramont had to take a few weeks off from his duties as head of the directing program at California State University in Fullerton to stage Next Fall, and perhaps as a result there’s a slightly harried quality to the proceedings. As the stage turntable pivots, we jump forward and backward in time, from a cramped waiting room to the abstract outlines of various New York roofs and apartments, charting Adam and Luke’s unlikely relationship. Yet somehow the business ultimately works in service to the narrative, as do Daniel Conway’s set designs (special care has been taken to a hospital bed we only see for a few fleeting minutes in the second act).
Despite the overall seriocomic tone, there are moments that play like a horror movie, where we cover our eyes and beg Adam to stop doing what he’s doing. Never is this more apparent than in a scene where he launches continued, veiled assaults on Luke’s father’s belief system. Of course he has a right to be mad at Butch (Kevin Cutts) for all the inadvertent pain the man’s caused his son, but we nevertheless cover our eyes and beg Adam to quit while he’s ahead, before he gets to the part about wiping his ass with the Bible.
We mostly just see Luke as a cipher, the impetus for change in Adam. But this seems a little misguided — after all, Luke’s the one with the true conflict. Why, as he reluctantly admits in one exchange, can Matthew Shepard’s murderers go to Heaven but Shepard himself can’t? Luke says this is only “technically” true, although the idea of hate-filled people sneaking past the Pearly Gates on a mere technicality certainly casts doubt on the whole enterprise as he envisions it. Yet Adam doesn’t press this point.
I may begrudge the lack of more philosophical debate, but to do so is admittedly to miss the point of what Nauffts, Ramont and Round House are trying to accomplish. The great thing about Next Fall is that, even in this age of Rick Santorums, neither the playwright nor the gifted team behind this production feel like their purpose is to take a stand for something.
Luke isn’t some divine model for tolerance; his father isn’t quite (although comes awful — and I mean awful – close to) the poster child for Bible-thumpin’ hate. Walls aren’t adorned with pride symbols or crosses. No one proposes easy answers or lectures the audience. At the end, following the closest thing the play has to a “born-again” moment, life goes on.
This isn’t a story about a movement or a population or generational differences or a struggle for acceptance. It’s a story about people who, through unspoken arguments, elevate personal compromise and faith reconciliation to an art form. And for this alone, Next Fall is worth seeing.
Next Fall runs through Feb 26, 2012 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway Bethesda, MD.
By Geoffrey Nauffts
Directed by Mark Ramont
Produced by Round House Theatre in Bethesda
Reviewed by Andrew Lapin
Two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission