Autumn Leave: Geoffrey Nauffts' Next Fall falls flat

Autumn Leave: Geoffrey Nauffts' <i>Next Fall</i> falls flat
Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Jeffrey Kuhn and Colin Hanlon in Next Fall.
Geoffrey Nauffts' play, Next Fall, arrives at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis with an exquisite pedigree. Earlier this year it received a Broadway production — which doesn't happen often nowadays to new American scripts by first-time playwrights. The Tony Award-nominated play received a glowing review ("smart, sensitive and utterly contemporary") from New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, a view that was shared by the woman sitting behind me on opening night. At intermission she informed her companion, "The writing is crisp and new." Smart and sensitive. Crisp and new. What more do you want from an evening of theater?

How about this? That when the play is over, the audience at least knows it's over. When the viewer doesn't realize the story has ended until the actors return to the stage to take their bows, something is amiss. That something just might be a lack of shape and focus. Or it might be that the central character has lost us, despite the fact that the story he's telling involves matters of life and death.

As we enter the Grandel Theatre, the set seems to be a stylishly spare Manhattan apartment, snappily designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge and deceptively lit by John Wylie in soothing turquoise hues. The moment Next Fall begins, that tranquility is abruptly snapped, and we realize we are in a hospital waiting room. The friends and family of Luke, a young actor who has been in a terrible accident, co-exist uneasily as they share the vigil of awaiting news of his fate.

Have a nice trip: Susan Greenhill, Colin Hanlon, Keith Jochim and Jeffrey Kuhn in Next Fall.
Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Have a nice trip: Susan Greenhill, Colin Hanlon, Keith Jochim and Jeffrey Kuhn in Next Fall.

Details

Next Fall
Through November 14 at the Grandel Theatre, 3160 Grandel Square.
Tickets are $18 to $45.
Call 314-968-4925 or visit www.repstl.org.

Now the story embarks on a series of flashbacks that chronicle the five-year romance between Luke and his current partner, Adam. The only obstacle to their total bliss is that Luke is a devout Christian and Adam is not. Adam is a devout narcissist; he elevates his hypochondria into self-love. In scenes that are both overwritten and underwritten, the gay Christian and the gay agnostic wrangle over how religion affects their lives. Overwritten, in that the scenes go on and on while saying little; underwritten, in that every time the play comes close to substance, we get a copout line like, "Do you really want to talk about this?" and the subject abruptly changes. It is maddening how often these scenes end where they should be starting.

Although some would have us believe that these riffs about religion are the play's raison d'etre, they are actually decoys. This story is as old as Adam and Eve: It's a tale of forbidden love, intermingled with the eternal impasse between fathers and sons. By evening's end, Adam and Luke's relationship is far less intriguing than the one between Luke and his conservative Southern father, Butch (another less-than-subtle name). But because the craven Luke is incapable of telling his father that he is gay, the potential for dramatic confrontation between these two is diminished. Too bad, because Colin Hanlon, who plays Luke, gives a genial and appealing performance, and Keith Jochim is outstanding as the father who exudes a blundering dignity even as he feigns denial about his son's sexuality.

Unfortunately, Jeffrey Kuhn's portrayal of Adam is out of place in this production and on this stage. According to his playbill biography, Kuhn has been acting of late in brassy musicals on Broadway. That might be part of the problem, because director Seth Gordon has allowed Kuhn to give a performance that would feel broad at the Muny. Instead of instilling Next Fall with humor and humanity, Kuhn comes across as loud and abrasive. At one point Adam tells Luke, "I want you to love me more than you love Him." But if Jesus himself had spent five years living with the obnoxious Adam, he might have torn the Sermon on the Mount to shreds.

There are two women's roles. One is undeveloped; the other is a cliché. Ben Nordstrom, who fills out the cast as Brandon, Luke's companion prior to Adam, gives an admirably understated performance. But after Brandon feels obligated to tell us his dark secret, all his alluring mystery is for naught. By the way, did I mention that Next Fall is described as a comedy? I heard fat jokes, jokes about kids with cleft palates, Jeffrey Dahmer jokes — but nothing very funny. Maybe that's what makes Next Fall so utterly contemporary. It offers a new approach to comedy, one where you don't laugh. 

 
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