Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall was written only five years ago, in 2009. Having finished on Broadway not long after, it feels a long time coming to UK audiences. The play, exploring the intimacies of a gay couple, one of whom is also deeply religious, is a tad overdue. However, with an audience made up of mainly men many of whom willing to discuss their “gayness” during a post-show Q&A, it speaks volumes about the fact that plays exploring homosexuality and religion are still so scarce and novel.
We are thrown in at the deep end; a hospital waiting room amongst dying man Luke’s (Martin Delaney) loved ones. He’s had a terrible, melodramatic accident which has left him comatose and unable to fix the drama unfolding in the next room. As soon as the play begins, we are catapulted into this mix and forced to play catch up. The play cuts back and forth between the present and snippets of the long-term relationship between Luke and his much older boyfriend, Adam (Charlie Condou). The two women provide refreshing contradiction to the male characters; Sirine Saba captures the self-conscious but determined nature of hippy, best-friend Holly in a way many will empathise with and Nancy Crane shines as Luke’s semi reformed mother, her Southern drawl adding to the image of a well-meaning woman incapable of mincing her words. But it is the men who provide the play’s largest conflicts; Butch (Mitchell Mullen), Luke’s devoutly Christian father, refuses to acknowledge his son’s sexuality whilst Luke, still in the closet to his parents, is happy enough to fall in love, co-habit and make love to Adam despite believing his other half will go straight to hell on judgement day because he doesn’t believe in God. Adam meanwhile is in the midst of a mid-life crisis, begging his toy-boy boyfriend to “love me more than you love Him”.
The first half is littered with laughs and many stereotypes are addressed; Arlene expresses her relief at her son being brought to a Jewish hospital because “Jews make good doctors, and accountants too”, but the story takes a long time to arrive at the root. However, despite the camp and light hearted execution, this play manages to throw up questions of self-discovery, family and being true to oneself with a realness that comes from Nauffts drawing on his own experiences, making the tenderness and intimacy between the two lead characters so tangible. Luke Sheppard has directed a piece that tries hard to break away from the norm and go in a new direction; one of the lines cites “going places you’ve never been before” but unfortunately this journey does not transmit further than the characters onstage. The play picks up speed after the interval and character’s backstories are brought to light however, one character is left fundamentally underdeveloped. Brandon (Ben Cura) toting a dog-eared bible, is Luke’s ex-best friend; he shares Luke’s love of God but admits during an uncomfortable park bench scene with Adam, that he also loves men. This character could have been the beacon for a religion versus homosexuality debate but instead he feels glossed over and Cura is left to grapple with his two dimensional lot.
Nauffts doesn’t achieve enlightenment for his audiences with this production; instead he achieves a camp and darkly funny soap opera-esque two hours, tackling familiar issues of dishonesty, family, religion, love and tragedy in a way that speaks to an audience much broader than the play’s subjects.