While Next Fall, the new play currently in previews and opening March 11th at The Helen Hayes Theater, falls squarely into the category of the comedic drama, the show is at its best when playing for laughs. In fact, for a play tackling the issues of family tragedy, closeted long-term gay relationships and the validity/value of Christian religion, Next Fall provides a surprising number of riotous one-liners and brilliant sight gags.
Presented by Sir Elton John and David Furnish, the story begins in a hospital waiting room (a pale blue set, slightly more reminiscent of a 1950s diner than a current-day medical facility), where a diverse group of family and friends have gathered to wait for news of Luke (Patrick Heusinger), a young aspiring actor struck down by a cab on the streets of New York City. As the play unfolds, the audience is introduced to Luke’s largely absentee mother, Arlene (Connie Ray), demanding, unsatisfied father, Butch (Cotter Smith) and sarcastic, hypochondriac partner of five years, Adam (Patrick Breen). Many of the initial comedic elements of the play are delivered by Luke’s mother, a manic former addict who natters on about her chihuahua, while making racially and ethnically inappropriate remarks, all chalked up to her Southern naiveté.
As Arlene, an over-the-top, mile-a-minute comedic red-head, Connie Ray’s performance falls into the vein of that perfected by Julie White in The Little Dog Laughed, but for the most part her character comes over as somewhat forced. However, when Luke’s partner Adam joins the family and friends gathered in the hospital, the comedy and heart of the play get into full-swing in flashbacks highlighting key moments in Luke and Adam’s relationship. Here, Patrick Breen shines as a witty and acerbic neurotic, grappling with a mid-life crisis and falling for Luke, despite their diverging religious beliefs.
Although the physicality between the two romantic leads is not entirely believable (with almost no physical contact between the couple at all prior to a scene near the close of the play), the couple’s relationship is for the most part realistic. In particular, some of the most entertaining scenes are those that showcase Adam and Luke’s debates over the existence of an afterlife and how it is possible to reconcile a God that condemns your way of life with a continued belief in said God. In these scenes, Patrick Heusinger’s Luke also springs to life, with a few touching moments delivered as he tries to convince Adam of the truth of his beliefs.
The remaining cast members serve their purposes to differing degrees of success. The most perplexing character is Sean Dugan’s Brandon, a friend of Luke’s also waiting in the hospital lobby. Throughout most of the play it is unclear exactly what relationship Brandon has with the couple and even when it is fleshed out somewhat toward the conclusion, Dugan plays Brandon so woodenly that it remains hard to see how the character adds any value to the story.
Cotter Smith’s portrayal of Luke’s father is more satisfying. Tasked with the difficult role of a bullying, bigoted man deeply entrenched in his religious beliefs, Smith manages to avoid making his character a one-note villain by falling completely into stereotype. Unfortunately, delivery of one of the play’s key climactic elements also falls on his shoulders and fails to come across as emotionally genuine.
Finally, after overcoming a bit of initial stiffness, Maddie Corman plays the couple’s friend, Holly, with some excellent comedic moments. However, neither she nor the rest of her castmates really accomplish the task of making the audience feel as though it is experiencing the tragedy that Luke’s family and friends are undergoing, despite being a production that clearly wants to break your heart. In the end, while the play is well worth watching for its lighter side, audience members may leave the theater with their hearts unsatisfyingly intact.