07 May 2010

Fun with Free Theater: NEXT FALL

I had heard mixed things about NEXT FALL.  Brantley, who seems awfully arbitrary in his taste this year, acted like he had seen the best American play since DEATH OF A SALESMAN.   Friends responses ranged from "it's hysterical" to the more ambivalent "I liked it" to the vitriolic "I was offended".  

Just from reading the press materials, I admit I was not particularly intrigued, and probably would not have gone out of my way to see it if I had to pay full price, or even more than $30.  The central question "Can a devout Christian and an Atheist get along [if they're gay and dating and stuff, oh, and one's 15 years older than the other one]?" didn't interest me all that much.  "Yes", would be my answer.  End of play.  This is 2010, and unless someone is a crazy, Westboro Baptist style, fundamentalist, most people of faith learn how to live lives of faith in manner harmonious with a mostly secular society.  

And Luke, the central character of NEXT FALL, seems to fall in the more reasonable, latter, category.  So his atheist boyfriend's 4 year long inability to understand his boyfriend's faith never seemed convincing to me.  Most of the theology of the first act consisted of Adam being unable to comprehend the Christian idea that accepting Jesus into your heart, and not good deeds, is the secret of getting into Heaven--that Matthew Shepard would go to hell (if he did not have Jesus in his heart), but his killers could repent and go to heaven.  I agree, that is some major bullshit--if you believe in the Christian notion of a heaven and hell in the first place.  If Luke's thoughts about the afterlife affected his behavior towards those outside of his faith, I would buy that as an issue.  But it doesn't.  Luke, in fact, never brings it up unless goaded by Adam, whose arguments are awfully sophomoric for the educated 40+ year old writer/teacher we're supposed to believe he is.  

In the second act this "conflict" begins to show some signs of relevance as issues such as Luke's inner conflict with being gay and Christian, or Luke's inability of offer any solace in a time of loss that is not tinged in his faith are put on the table.  These issues affect behavior and are thus at least dramatically credible, but only lightly touched upon.

What made these dogmatic issues most frustrating to me was the fact that I think NEXT FALL is an otherwise excellent play--well paced, funny, and surprising with characters I genuinely cared for.  The execution was also top drawer--well directed, well designed, slick and professional and engaging throughout.  As long as the characters were talking about something else--ANYTHING else, candles even--other than the heart of the play.  I would, in fact, recommend you see it before it's inevitable closing.  Even the annoying Jesus-talk scenes flow by rather painlessly, and if you aren't prone to talking or thinking about theater after seeing it, you might not even be annoyed by them.  

Also, am I the only one who remembers The Torkelsons?  Because the mom on that, Connie May, is fabulous as Luke's mom.  

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