AISLE SAY Florida

NEXT FALL

by Geoffrey Nauffts
Directed by Kate Alexander
Florida Studio TheatreÕs Keating Mainstage
1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota, 941-366-9000
January 25 through March 31, 2012 

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

Car Crash! Now LukeÕs in a coma in a Jewish  hospital where his long-divorced  parents Butch and Arlene have been summoned to be with him.  Adam, his lover of five years, has rushed to do the same. Not officially family, Adam is denied access. Also waiting are LukeÕs friends Holly, who employed both in her candle business, and Brandon, LukeÕs  co-religionist whoÕs not as close to him as he once was.  In flashbacks that alternate with the hospital scene, Luke  relationship to everyone, but essentially with Adam, unfolds.
 
Except for both falling in love at first sight, Adam and Luke contrast vitally. Hypochandriac, middle-aged businessman Adam is openly gay, narcisistic, not very sociable, and self-satisfied as an atheist. Outgoing, likeable, young  hopeful actor  Luke, a  born-again Christian much into religious ritual (prayers before meals and after f--ing),  has kept guilt feelings about gay sex and remained closeted to his parents. Adam is grounded in the present; Luke always has eternity on his mind. Adam wants to be first in LukeÕs life; Luke wants Adam to share his faith in being saved by Jesus so they all can be together in life after death.  Crash! What happens regarding this situation and  attendant conflicts in the waiting room?
 
Though tackling the subjects of  age,  attachments to family and friends, and particularly religion as divisive factors in a love relationship, Next Fall plays out  much like a sitcom. LukeÕs parents are stereotypes, despite the considerable skill of Phillip Clark and Judith Hawking in making  them real people as well. LukeÕs father (named Butch!) is a consummate redneck, literally biblical to his core, readily blind to who Adam is and why heÕs so anxious about Luke.  Not by nature cut out to be a mother or any kind of nurturer, Arlene is a loud Southern too-fat-to-be-belle. She  tries to be ingratiating and really has a heart though always not of gold, as evidenced by her having divorced Butch and leaving him to raise Luke.  Both parents have stayed in denial  but react differently on finally  seeing  the truth. Their actions both humanize and individualize them. To give a full context to the present predicament of understanding Adam and Luke, there are Katherine Michelle TannerÕs Holly and Kenajuan BentleyÕs intriguing Brandon. Holly seems to be there, not mainly as the proverbial fag-hag,  but to comment (right out of the play Our Town that Luke starred in) on the playÕs motif of the worthiness of life and reflecting on it. For Brandon, thereÕs  a religious  line to cross over  to practice or even openly approve of gay sexual ity. Could he, did he do either with Luke or, in fact, anyone? Since  author Nauffts has incompletely drawn the character of Brandon,  it is intriguing that Kate Alexander  has cast and directed an attractive, tight-lipped, African-American in the role to proclaim vehemently that he likes black men only. 
 
So whatÕs in NaufftsÕ play--in addition to a number of humorous touches--to distinguish it from a spate of fashionable plays about gays having  problems outing to their families or in general, or being fully compatible with their partners, or feeling comfortable with their homosexuality?  Answer: The contrasting religious  beliefs of  Luke and Adam and their commitment to them, particularly as that affects their relationship.  Several scenes of confrontation between them on the issues  just go poof before reaching any conclusions, much less alterations of eitherÕs views.  How far does LukeÕs failure to out himself to his father finally extend and what does that mean? Why is LukeÕs last look at Adam so important? Except for the parents acknowledging the truth about Luke being gay, has anyone decisively changed  in the dramaÕs time in the (why Jewish?) hospital? Like a sitcom, the play seems to have gone from a series of inconclusive episodes to the same kind of ending.  (As if with an end-of-TV-season offering, FSTÕs sponsoring a blog-forum where audiences can discuss the issues raised in the play, especially the religious one.)
 
As for the FST production, scenic designer Michael Schweikardt fails to solve the problem of NaufftsÕ  oft-changing  settings. An obviously fake rear window with skyline silhouette distinguishes the sparse hospital waiting room from the center of the guysÕ mod apartment solely via use of a drape, and thatÕs not consistent. Only an imitation stained glass hanging  turns the center into a chapel for visitors. Arrivals to the room through a single door on house left all scrunch up after entering and for a hurried final glimpse of Luke (melodramatic as can be) on his death bed (which I guess is supposed to be in another hospital room). Far right shows viewers the hotel room where the guys first met, also later uses shelved knick knacks to define part of their apartment, or becomes a place where Adam gives and gets phone messages in or out of town. Lighting  changes  (by Micheal Foster) seem valient attempts at smooth transitions but scenery and props shuffling by actors and crew members  take too much time and often break mood.  Director Alexander  gets her actors to seem oblivious to the amateurish qualities of the script but she hasnÕt surmounted the difficulties of disguising them in its staging.  When one of the characters waiting to hear of LukeÕs chance at life  says that "itÕs over" Š well, for many in the audience, 2 hours and 20 minutes of it have been interesting but enough.

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