Geoffrey Nauffts’ “Next Fall,” at the Geffen Playhouse, includes clashes over faith, sexuality and family; bright bon mots; a cast full of film and TV luminaries and the play’s original helmer, Sheryl Kaller. It’s got everything, in fact, except ferocity, which unfortunately is the one essential ingredient for making all the other ingredients work. Without characters fighting for high-stakes objectives — and actor Nauffts in particular lets playwright Nauffts down in this regard — the material plays like limp, undernourished melodrama.
The action shifts between past and present, but the future promised by the title is off the table. An errant Manhattan taxi driver has left affable, aspiring actor Luke (James Wolk) in what increasingly appears to be an irreversible coma.
As friends and loved ones, notably lover Adam (Nauffts), cope and wrangle in the hospital waiting room, flashbacks explore the central fact of a tender yet rocky five-year relationship: Luke is a fully invested, born-again Christian, while agnostic Adam can’t imagine how a gay man in 2011 could buy into all that guff. Not to mention pray before meals and after sex.
The play’s engine is Adam’s volatility, seen not just in his abhorrence of fundamentalism but in his multiple career disappointments, raging hypochondria and nagging suspicion that he doesn’t deserve so young and hot a life mate. There’s even a dollop of jealousy, as he eyes optimist Luke’s sunny certainty about our place in the universe.
Adam’s short fuse is evident everywhere in the text, and certainly rage and need were seething within the droll quipping of original Gotham thesp Patrick Breen. At the Geffen, however, Nauffts and Kaller opt for an offhanded, long-suffering take on the character, cutting the guts out of the production.
This Adam constantly retreats, physically and psychologically. His debates with Luke – not the most pungent theological conversations to begin with – are infused with no need to persuade, so they just sit there, lifeless. His baiting of in-laws Butch and Arlene (Jeff Fahey and Lesley Ann Warren) similarly lacks purpose.
Nauffts’ ho-hum reaction, early on, when a “family only” regulation bars him from Luke’s bedside signals the evening’s paucity of passion and increasingly flaccid air. A surprise confrontation with Luke’s dad — who professes ignorance of his son’s lifestyle — carries no more sting than a summer stock revival of “Norman, Is That You?”
Other cast members work diligently despite Kaller’s often glacial pacing and a curiously flat, dull set from Wilson Chin. James Wolk fully inhabits Luke’s faith and fortitude, presenting a romantic idol we can readily accept Adam’s coveting.
Fahey’s a force to be reckoned with, especially when Butch’s facade finally drops, though Arlene’s showpiece monologue would work better if Warren didn’t sit face front in an attitude of “Here comes my monologue.” Ken Barnett brings intelligence and mystery to the afterthought role of a Bible-wielding friend from Luke’s more distant past.
Most welcome of all is Betsy Brandt (of TV’s “Breaking Bad”), transcending gay-guy-gal-pal cliches with honesty and gusto. (She understands Luke’s spirituality: “I have five yoga mats in my closet.”) But candle entrepreneur Holly isn’t ever central to the story, and in the end, comedy relief can only be as effective as the amount of tension the comedy is required to relieve.