Theater Review - Next Fall stages hot-button social issues with limited grace

Actor's Express play struggles to reconcile religion and relationships

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that "The true test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time." In the Actor's Express production of Next Fall, Luke (Joe Sykes) may not be a brainiac, but his life embraces a paradox. A young, aspiring actor in New York, Luke seems perfectly comfortable being gay, even though as a devout Christian, he believes that homosexuality is inherently sinful.

Luke's older boyfriend Adam (Mitchell Anderson) grapples with his own contradictory ideas as he falls in love with Luke without sharing his deepest beliefs. Geoffrey Nauffts' play targets some of today's knottiest social issues involving religion and relationships, but the production's execution falls a little short of rapturous.

Next Fall begins in a waiting room of Beth Israel Hospital, where Luke has been admitted following a serious traffic accident. Luke's loved ones gather, including his divorced parents (William S. Murphey and Patricia French), Luke's employer (Jennifer Levison), and finally Adam. The play cuts back and forth between the present-day hospital scenes and moments from five years of Luke and Adam's relationship, beginning with their first meeting.

Adam comes across as the kind of self-absorbed neurotic who probably began his midlife crisis the day after he graduated from college. Luke's youth and cheerful outlook help ground Adam, but the older man still feels irritated by Luke's habits of praying before meals and after sex. Luke also believes in the Rapture and the idea that anyone can ascend to heaven if they accept Jesus, even murderers who convert.

Luke never outed himself to his parents and in one flashback "de-gays" their apartment before his father's visit: "Don't we have any unscented soaps?" In the present, tensions mount over whether the parents or the boyfriend qualify as "next of kin," particularly when Luke's condition takes an unexpected turn.

Directed by Kate Warner, former artistic director of Dad's Garage Theatre, Next Fall builds to a powerful confrontation in its second act, but resists heating up for most of its running time. The dreary music between scenes sets a doleful tone, while two performances keep the show from meeting its potential. Anderson brings out Adam's negative qualities almost exclusively, including peevishness and hypochondria. (I could imagine Woody Allen delivering lines like, "I hope I'm not getting a clot!") Adam seldom comes across as particularly charming, making us wonder what Luke sees in him or why we should care about his feelings.

Murphey captures the entitlement and bigotry of Luke's bullying father, the unsubtly named "Butch." As a successful Florida businessman with a longtime fondness for New York, Butch has cosmopolitan qualities that don't quite come across in Murphey's performance. Fortunately, some of Next Fall's most cathartic moments involve Anderson and Murphey's interactions. Overall, in its attempt to dramatize characters with such divided emotions, the Actor's Express production of Next Fall proves that conveying two contradictory ideas is no easy task.

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