Review: ‘Next Fall’ is potent, but not perfect

Opening night jitters blunt the impact of a touch-and-go medical dramady.

Luke and Adam first fell for each other when Luke (James Sharinghousen) gave Adam (Jason Glick) the Heimlich maneuver, but now their caretaker roles are reversed. Luke lies unconscious in the hospital while his helpless partner keeps vigil. Next Fall‘s premise hits especially close to home for Triangle Productions director Don Horn, whose son sustained a 46-day coma in 2006 before reviving and pulling through.

Geoffey Nauffts’ fictional script unfolds on two planes that the stage is split to accommodate. On the right side, there’s the hospital waiting room, where Luke’s friends and family—strangers to one another— interact awkwardly and imagine the worst. On the left, we’re shown scenes from Luke and Adam’s past, the laid-up Luke springing back into action to depict Adam’s memories of their relationship—some touching, some tense.

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Meet the ensemble: Helen Raptis, Bill Barry, James Sharinghousen, Jason Glick, Michelle Maida and Alex Fox.

The dynamic between Luke and Adam is a familiar May-September romance; an energetic, naive pup nipping at the heels of an older, more sedate dog who mostly enjoys it but occasionally growls. The gay rights politic, though ever-present, is neither overblown nor oversimplified by this story, thanks to Luke’s mixed loyalties across the commonly accepted “gays v. Christians” and “gays v. Republicans” binaries. Like his Bible-banging parents, Luke believes that homosexuality is a sin…it’s just one he’s willing to repeat and then repent every day. When his dad visits the couple’s shared apartment, Luke attempts to hastily “de-gay” the place (unfortunately missing a racy Mapplethorpe). Adam, of course, disagrees with Luke’s approach and frequently calls out his young partner’s hypocrisy. At the time of Luke’s injury, this bone of contention has finally snapped and Adam’s on the verge of leaving…but he doesn’t expect it to end this way. Now stuck in the waiting room with nothing but time to reflect, he’s regretting his last words and (understandably) chafing at the company of Luke’s parents, who, though concerned and loving, are also the source of Luke’s half-baked beliefs.

Luke’s father, the stoic and almost too aptly named Butch (Bill Barry), has converted his anxiety to anger, while his mother Arlene (Helen Raptis) burns off her nervous energy by running her colorful mouth. Brandon and Holly (Alex Fox and Michelle Maida) are tertiary supporters of Luke; his fellow Bible student/possible ex and his employer, respectively. Their waiting room seats would be tight enough without the proverbial elephant in the room: Luke and Adam’s romantic relationship, which Adam doesn’t feel at liberty to reveal to Luke’s parents. And therein lies the most prominent political footnote: If the couple were heterosexual, this issue would at least be less looming. (Don’t forget that liberal heteros can still face blowback from conservative family members for “living in sin.” Still, that problem seems smaller overall, doesn’t it? Instead of a whole elephant, somebody might just have a cow.)

Despite the heavy implications here, Naufft’s dialogue feels natural and unpretentious, peppered with the sort of popped-off un-PC remarks and casual errors that happen in ordinary discourse. A character who means “cleft palate” accidentally says “club feet” and is corrected. The word “Mongolian” is misunderstood as “mongoloid,” leading to an irrelevant observation about the mentally disabled. Realistic and perhaps less funny than it intends to be, the script at least avoids feeling preachy. Much of the dramatic burden rests on Adam’s shoulders, and we definitely feel for him. He wasn’t too happy with his life before Luke, and he’s at his wits’ end now.

On opening night, performances across the board lacked a final polish. Southern accents had a hitch in their getalong, and general momentum stagnated within scenes as single moods or poses were held too long. At one point, a character even called Butch by the wrong name, “Bruce”—though there is no Bruce at all in the play. The supporting cast could still stand to get better acquainted with each other, the leads, and their lines, as well as conjure more dynamic moods within each scene. They’re not far off…but they’re not quite there.

A few loose ends won’t deal-break this powerful content. Still, the kickoff of Next Fall does overlap with the final weeks of Defunkt’s (recently extended) Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom, a play very similar in theme (from hospitalization to health to the special concerns of long-term commitment between gay men) if not tone (Flowers is more irreverent by design, funnier and warmer in execution) in which every performer is pulling his weight. Depending on how you look at it, each of these shows could inform a greater dialogue about gay monogamy and health from different angles…or, seeing one could negate the necessity of catching the other. If you have to choose, you’re better off snatching the last few Flowers while Fall‘s pieces settle into place.

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A. L. Adams also writes the monthly column Art Walkin’  for  The Portland Mercury, and is  former arts editor of Portland Monthly magazine. Read more from Adams: Oregon ArtsWatch | The Portland Mercury
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