With its romantic story of two gay lovers whose idyllic relationship is threatened by one partner’s atheism and the other’s imminent death, “Next Fall” keeps threatening to fall into TV-weeper territory. But every time Geoffrey Nauffts’ bittersweet drama heads for that slippery slope, scribe pulls it right back with some painful illustration of the social constraints and political injustices that can drive even the most loving couples apart. Provided they can count on mounting a production as slickly professional as the one helmed here by Sheryl Kaller for Naked Angels, gay-friendly venues should put this one on the repertory.
Opening scene in a hospital waiting room alerts aud that something grim is in store for Luke (Patrick Heusinger), the accident victim undergoing emergency surgery, and for the people who love him. That would be Arlene (Connie Ray) and Butch (Cotter Smith), Luke’s parents, who have flown up from Florida; Adam (Patrick Breen), his distraught lover; and good friends Holly (Maddie Corman) and Brandon (Sean Dugan).
Potentially awkward introductions go swiftly, thanks to Kaller’s smooth helming of a uniformly good cast and efficient sound and light cues from the design team. Jessica Wegener’s nicely interpreted costumes help a lot with character definition and, in the case of Holly, Adam’s quick-witted best friend and the owner of the candles-and-tchotchkes shop where Luke works, colorful rags give us something entertaining to look at in the sterile hospital setting.
Not that the play lingers here longer than necessary. With a few deft moves from Wilson Chin’s well-oiled set pieces, Adam and Luke’s five-year relationship goes into playback — beginning with the party where they meet cute (when Luke administers the Heimlich maneuver to Adam) to their final argument in the apartment they shared.
The early scenes are the tricky part, since they have to convince us that Luke, a certifiably gorgeous and apparently talented tyro actor in his mid-20s, would fall madly in love with Adam, a smart, funny and crotchety guy of 40 who doesn’t even have a decent job to show for all his cleverness. Luke may be sweet, but he’s no bimbo, and in Heusinger’s appealing perf, the pretty boy actually has a brain to call his own. But his dog-like devotion to sour, cynical Adam isn’t entirely convincing, even in the magnetic perf turned in by Breen, who smartly shows us the insecure, self-destructive side of Adam’s character that the playwright indicates, but doesn’t really explain.
Interestingly (and unconventionally enough), the couple’s basic quarrel over the years is not the expected one about the degree of faithfulness an older lover can expect from a young hunk with oodles of curb appeal. Rather, it’s Luke’s evangelical brand of Christianity and his insistent attempts to convert his atheist lover. Intellectually, Luke keeps losing these arguments, but he wins on points over Adam’s cruelly cutting debating style.
Adam curbs his tongue, though, when he encounters Luke’s stolid Christian parents, who establish their own turf in the scenes at the hospital, where Luke is fading fast. Butch and Arlene are not as naive as they seem, and with savvy pros Smith and Ray pacing out their moves, there’s a subtlety about the power play between parents and undeclared lover when the dread question is raised about cutting off Luke’s life support.
Since so much of the play has to do with Adam’s conversion from cynical atheism to a belief in love, “Next Fall” might be taken as a study in character-building. But Nauffts (who took over as a.d. of Naked Angels in 2007) gives terrific emotional oomph to the final hospital scenes, in which Adam, who knows Luke so well, is denied the “family” rights to speak for him on his deathbed — or even visit him alone as he lies dying. At which point, “Next Fall” stops being coy and becomes a potent piece of political theater.