A gay male relationship sails through the reefs of an age gap, polarized religious views, and a semi-closeted existence, in Next Fall, an off-B'way comedy hit that was moved to B'way itself for a respectable run.
Young Luke (Zach Lewis) likes older men, and makes an instant and successful play for Adam (Brad Goertz); the warmth of their relationship is established with humor and wit. Both are comfortable with their sexuality, but Luke is deep in the closet to his domineering father Butch (Bob Boudreaux). Luke's mother Arlene (Tek Wilson) chatters like a magpie, but so entertainingly that I would travel to hear her read a telephone book. Adam works in the candle shop of his friend Holly (Daria Allen), and Luke has a close friend Brandon (Matt Benton), whom he left for Adam. We meet them in a hospital waiting room, after a serious accident to Luke. The five-year relationship between Luke and Adam is told in flashbacks.
This is a comedy because the repartee is witty, often in fresh, unexpected ways, and because the situations are often comic - for example, having to "de-gay" the apartment the lovers share because of an imminent, unexpected visit from Butch. But it is a play that revolves around one of its key props, a bible, and varying views of religion, God, an after-life, the Rapture and redemption hover in the air like storm clouds. The dialectic is less than satisfying, to a large extent because Butch is written as overbearing, cold, and a bully, making identifying with him difficult. Brandon, though gay himself, is religious and homophobic, and neither Butch nor he seems to have a sense of humor. Fortunately, the four other characters do.
The acting is uniformly excellent, with Wilson's vivacious charm a standout. Lewis and Goertz generate a sense of play and competitiveness that authenticates their relationship. Both have matinee idol looks - the role of Adam is usually played by actors less-good-looking, but the casting here is engaging and adds credibility. (These actors played similar roles superbly in the play Post earlier this year in the same venue.) In a confrontation with Adam, Benton demonstrates a controlled power that is admirable. Allen has no big scene, but she is interesting and persuasive throughout. Compelled to be the heavy, Boudreaux does that well, perhaps too well.
The comedic drama is directed by Ron Jones, artistic director of Celebration Theatre, and he has transformed the sometimes mundane setting of Obsidian Art Space with a handsome, flexible set, by Craig Allen, that works wonderfully. The pace is quick, but Jones also knows just how effective a pause can be. Where the script calls for an awkward moment, he makes the moment fascinating, not painful, no small feat. The result is a polished production that is even more sophisticated than the script.
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This is playwright Geoffrey Nauffts's first full-length play but he is heavily experienced as a television and film writer, as a stage actor and director, and as artistic director of Naked Angels, where the play premiered. His comedic talent is brilliant - the play sparkles with witty surprises too priceless to spoil by quoting them, but the development seems constructed rather than organic. The play has the arc that good writing demands, but the payoff, while effective in dramatic and emotional terms, may test your suspension of disbelief. The play was nominated for a Tony and won an Outer Critics Circle Award. This production opens Celebration Theatre's season, with the mission of producing quality plays that deal with LGBT issues with sensitivity and integrity. Four more productions will fill out the season, making it a most welcome addition to Houston's theatrical scene.
Compelling acting and sparkling repartee enliven an unusual gay love story, with dramatic moments and an emotional payoff adding to the splendor of this new, fresh and engaging comedic drama.