Los Angeles Theater Review: NEXT FALL (Geffen)

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by Tony Frankel on November 8, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles


My extreme reluctance to recommend Next Fall should not necessarily deter you from seeing it. Stay with me here. Geoffrey Nauffts’ Tony-nominated play, which concerns a gay couple with polarized religious beliefs, is a hybrid of Steel Magnolias (Southern quips and medical melodrama), Manhattan (the neurotic, atheistic, hypochondriac New Yorker who lands a younger, gorgeous lover) and most Neil Simon plays (the sit-com/Chekhovian mixture of comedic frustration and serious introspection).

Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts at the Geffen Playhouse – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankel

As such, the play has many components that can win over an audience: an odd couple romance, clever remarks, a life-and-death conflict which forces characters to examine their beliefs, and an intriguing look at religion and social stigmas. Add a star-filled cast and the consummate professionalism of the Geffen Theatre and we have a product that is sure to please the masses. Yet this recipe for success is missing the most important ingredient of all: believability, both in the script and some of the casting.

Next Fall is a perfect example of not-so-great plays from Broadway that became praiseworthy because of the original casts. Actors who originate roles in the developmental stage can feed the playwright’s vision, and, subconsciously or not, the playwright develops dialogue around an actor’s choices in rehearsal. These original actors are so enmeshed with their characters that even the most discerning of critics have difficulty differentiating between a great script and a great production of a problematic script (to be fair, some reviewers noticed that the script was implausible, yet gave the show a hardy recommendation because of the cast – namely Patrick Breen in the lead role). Even well-written scripts, such as August: Osage County, begin to show their cracks without the original company. The best and most current example is God of Carnage, which doesn’t tally up to a great deal on paper, but the original firecracker-of-a-cast and a brilliant director elevated the script to an insanely pleasurable evening.

Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts at the Geffen Playhouse – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankel

The far less intelligent Next Fall could have been something of a guilty pleasure, given the plentiful one-liners assigned to underdeveloped characters, but with the wrong actor in the lead – in this case the playwright Nauffts himself – we are left with a perfectly inconsequential play that borders on the interminable.

The gay couple is Luke and Adam (you’ll have to consult the Bible on your own to see if there is some kind of significance to the names). While at a party, the anxious, candle-selling, middle-aged Adam (Nauffts) is approached by Luke (the charming and perfectly cast James Wolk). Some twenty years his junior, the much better-looking, aspiring actor and cater waiter Luke instantly falls for the urbane and hyperventilating Adam. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why the delectable and endearing Luke would fall for the hesitant, whiny and negative Adam. (Luke later admits that he fell in love when Adam admitted to having a fat soul.) With such a questionable union on paper, Nauffts must supply something which would make him so appealing to Luke – anger, passion, sympathy…anything…yet he does not.

The compelling aspect of their relationship is that Luke is Christian and prays before eating and after sex. Even though atheist Adam admires that Luke is pro-choice and pro–stem cell research, he mercilessly ridicules the childlike optimist with a lopsided diatribe about Matthew Shepard’s killers going to heaven if they accepted Christ as their savior, while the sinner Shepard, who hadn’t accepted Christ, goes to hell. It’s a fascinatingly persuasive invective, but it further underscores the absurdity of this union, as all the hangdog Luke can muster up after being ridiculed is, “Can we change the subject?”

Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts at the Geffen Playhouse – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankel

The play opens in a hospital where Luke lays in a coma after being hit by a cab. Luke’s divorced parents, hyper Arlene (the ever-luminous Lesley Ann Warren) and stern conservative Butch (Jeff Fahey) have arrived from Florida. Also in the waiting room are friends Holly (Betsy Brandt) and Brandon (Ken Barbett). Nauffts the playwright is on the right track as the characters do all that they can to avoid discussing the perilous situation, but there are three major problems.

First, the wisecracks are far-fetched: when Arlene gets off the phone, she announces, “Well, Frieda just shit all over the apartment.” Holly asks, “Your housekeeper?” To which Arlene responds, “My dog. I don’t have a housekeeper.” Humorous? Sure, to a culture weaned on simpleton television sit-coms.

The other far more serious quandary is that we know nothing about Brandon. He’s another closeted, Bible-carrying gay man (Luke has yet to come out to his parents), but it’s a headscratcher why this character even exists: drop him from the play completely, and he would never be missed.

Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts at the Geffen Playhouse – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankel

Nauffts’ interpretation of Adam is the most perplexing oddity of the evening: Adam arrives from a high school reunion and a delayed flight, with nothing to eat but a Cinnabon and three Bloody Marys. His lover lies in a coma, having had part of his skull removed in a surgery that lasted five hours, yet Adam is not allowed to see Luke (“family only”). When last they saw each other, Luke and Adam had a falling out. On top of it, Adam can not tell Luke’s parents that he is the lover. Can you imagine the angst, anger, frustration, and animosity? Nauffts deer-in-the-headlights approach lacks the intensity and rage that this play desperately needs in order to be palatable.

Next Fall perfectly elucidates why reviews of a play can accumulate disparate opinions. One hates the play, one loves it, and yet another is completely ambivalent. You see the play yourself and, sure enough, some people are amorous, touched, and openly sobbing…while others struggle to stay awake; still others think they love the play, but upon closer inspection, realize that it is the story they liked, not the execution. Then there are those who just don’t get what the hell is going on and bolt at intermission.

Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts at the Geffen Playhouse – Los Angeles Theater Review by Tony Frankel

The soapy Next Fall is so hampered by superficial character development, tepid direction by Sheryl Kaller, and a lead actor who is particularly flat that a recommendation feels inappropriate. However, even though my abhorrence of Next Fall was validated by those who fled at intermission and the man next to me (who, at curtain call harrumphed, “I hated it”), there were some audience members who were truly affected and weeping. What will you feel and why? To find out for yourself, you may just have to take this Fall.

photos by Michael Lamont

Next Fall
Gil Cates Theater
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave
ends on December 4, 2011
for tickets, call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Asher Kelman November 22, 2011 at 2:12 am


Thank goodness that you at least, give a really fair review of the far too long journey of Next Fall peppered with sitcom moments instead of drama. Although the playwright created a great atmosphere between the two improbable lovers, these fellows made no choices throughout the play. The few folks in the audience that were moved by the play felt “it represented their own lives and touched them deeply.” However, that kind of superficial eruptive emotional endorsement is not saying much for drama. Those moved could have been watching their country’s Olympic team get to parade at the opening ceremonies.

More of the audience, although well-mannered, were — it seemed to me — bored. I felt that one could miss the first act and then the TV sitcom jokes; silly or witty would have made the performance far more bearable and even entertaining. The fatal flaw was the playwright wasting real estate on characters like Brandon. the well-dressed closeted gay that did nothing for the core of the play.

Of all the reviews I’ve read, yours is closest to reality that I experienced.


HeathCliff Rothman November 27, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Your review matched my own. We left at intermission. Found the play lacking in believability in script – which we found implausible, simplistic and superficial – and the horrendous miscasting of the older lead, whose appeal was inexplicable, and threw the play off balance.


Wally Mason December 2, 2011 at 12:14 pm

Both reviews and comments spot on.

Too superficial and contrived. Promised some things but never delivered.

Had to leave at intermission and couldn’t take finding any resolution.


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