Next Fall -- Theater Review

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In these recessionary times, it might take more than the imprimatur of celebrity presenters Elton John and David Furnish to make "Next Fall" viable for a Broadway run. Lacking big-name stars, Geoffrey Nauffts' play is going to be a tough sell. But anyone interested in quality theater would do well to check out this deeply moving and surprisingly funny work.

Even the subject matter initially seems off-putting: A young man lies in a hospital bed near death, while his friends, family and lover bicker over issues like the existence of God.

But if this description makes the evening sound like a downer, it's far from it. Under the skillful direction of Sheryl Kaller, the play crackles with emotional force and acerbic humor.

Luke (Patrick Heusinger) is a hunky cater-waiter/aspiring actor who has been involved in a long-term relationship with the older, neurotic Adam (Patrick Breen), a 40-year-old underachiever who works as a salesperson in the candle shop run by his best friend, Holly (Maddie Corman).

After Luke is hit and seriously injured by a taxi, his loved ones gather to await his fate. Tensions soon flare as Luke's bigoted, religious father, Butch (Cotter Smith), is unaware of his son's sexual identity and can't understand what role Adam plays in his life.

A series of flashbacks depict Luke and Adam's meet-cute beginning and subsequent relationship issues. Foremost of these are their differing religious perspectives: the Christian Luke feels guilt for his "sins," and the atheistic Adam can't get over what he perceives as his lover's hypocrisy.

At times, the play gets bogged down in these arguments as Butch's diatribes about heaven and other religious issues begin to feel like leftovers from "Inherit the Wind."

But despite his occasional lapses into didacticism, playwright Nauffts (also a talented actor) maintains a tight focus on his characters, all drawn with surprising depth. He also reveals a talent for sharp comic dialogue and amusing situations, exemplified by the hilarious scene in which a frantic Luke tries to "de-gay" his apartment before a visit from his father.

The six-person ensemble, which also includes Connie Ray as Luke's steel magnolia mother and Sean Dugan as his emotionally guarded friend, delivers terrific performances. Particularly superb are Breen, who milks his character's neuroses for all its comic worth, and Smith, deeply moving as the macho father who reveals surprising vulnerability.

Venue: Helen Hayes Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Patrick Breen, Maddie Corman, Sean Dugan, Patrick Heusinger, Connie Ray, Cotter Smith
Playwright: Geoffrey Nauffts
Director: Sheryl Kallner
Scenic designer: Wilson Chin
Costume designer: Jess Goldstein
Lighting designer: Jeff Croiter
Original music/sound designer: John Gromada
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