Reviewed by Marc Wheeler
Geoffrey Nauffts’ tragically beautiful gay love story Next Fall tells the tale of a most unlikely pair: Luke (Tom Berklund), a devout “born again” Christian and Adam (Jay Ayers), a wry, 15-years-his-senior atheist. Nominated for a Best Play Tony Award in 2010, Next Fall is a richly layered exploration of love, faith and sacrifice that has the potential to get us, one way or another, to believe.
Key word: potential.
In the hands of Treehouse Productions’ disastrous staging of Next Fall at MACHA Theatre, it’s not that we’re of little faith, it’s that we’re of little reason to believe in much outside a welcome ending to our tribulations.
Take the opening scene. We find ourselves in a hospital waiting room with Luke’s mother, father and two friends. Luke’s been in a terrible accident and is in a coma. When Adam, his boyfriend of five years, finally arrives after taking the quickest flight home he could get from an out-of-town high school reunion, he’s somewhere on the emotional scale between “I’ll take a number four combo” and “Why’s there nothing good on TV?”
Wait, what? I thought you said he rushed back home when he heard his boyfriend’s been in a horrible accident and is in a coma?
I don’t know what director Robin Long was thinking. I don’t know how Ayers was cast. But Naufft’s heartbreaking, provocative script is often not to be found in this mess of a production. Ayers is in over his head, often wandering the stage as if lost in the desert looking heavenward (for what — guidance?) He doesn’t seem to understand the material, often emphasizing what’s written on the page instead of the essential subtext we need to make sense of his dialogue. And emotions? Forget it. You won’t find many from him in this intended tear-jerker.
As for chemistry with his romantic co-star (whose faith he condescendingly mocks) — if only we could believe. If this odd coupling weren’t perplexing enough, he shatters all hope of its believability.
Berklund, on the other hand, makes for a handsome devil of a Christ-lover as Luke. Charm and sex appeal he has in spades. In that sense it’s understandable why Adam would — at least initially — fall for him. His performance is endearing, and yet, what’s missing is a clearer sense of Luke’s internal struggles, especially in the face of pointed questions asked of him on the logistics of his faith. It can’t be easy being a Rapture-believing, gay Christian actor in New York City who views his own homosexuality as sinful. How does he make it work? Where’s his fight — or even his justifications? On a lesser note, his praying before meals doesn’t require him moving his lips — we get it.
Supporting roles (Zachary Barton, Stephen Mac Howard and Rachel Miles) are for the most part adequate, despite flubbed lines from a couple of them. There’s one standout that deserves attention, however: John Shartzer as Luke’s friend Brandon. Shartzer is brooding and pensive, his inner demons on full display without overdoing it. A thoughtful, guarded and tormented soul, he gets through life gliding over, even steamrolling, the paradox that lives inside him.
Jim Fry’s chintzy set consists of simple walls and chairs, setting the stage (literally) for this mostly amateurish production. That being said, stagehands dressed in hospital scrubs is a nice effect, continually reminding us of the bleak reality that is our present moment in a play that jumps back and forth between seasons. Also, gorgeous original piano music from composers Yaron Spiwak and Matt Walker (also serving as producers) and Haim Mazar make for satisfying interludes.
Next Fall is a tall order. Nauffts’ script requires a director’s complete understanding of its complexities and ability to express its unlikely love story through a cast who not only make sense of the material but also make it work. Unfortunately, in the hands of Treehouse Productions audiences are left expressing the sentiments of Mark 9:24 which plead:
“I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
Now playing a limited engagement through May 22, 2016
2 hours, with one 10-minute intermission