It seems shockingly rare to find a positive representation of religion on stage, especially one that attempts to marry Christianity with a successful gay relationship. Geoffrey Nauffts’ 2009 play Next Fall
goes some way to showing how a strict religious upbringing can shape a young gay man as he attempts to find his way in New York, juggling his older boyfriend with his commitment to God and his parents, whom he has yet to come out to. When a random accident leaves Luke on his deathbed, his family and boyfriend are brought together at his bedside, and their relationship is played in retrospect to reveal a tight web of secrets battling alongside Christian values.
It’s difficult to judge the message of the play - as an audience, you sympathise on the most basic level with Charlie Condou’s character, Adam, who is denied access to his long-term boyfriend so as not to out him while he lies unconscious. His character both prompts Luke to find the strength to come out while similarly facilitating his lies, meaning you’re never sure who is at fault and whose corner you're meant to back.
Nauffts’ characters are on the whole convincing, and most successful when not played for laughs. Despite the heavy themes of the play, comic relief comes from self-confessed ‘fag-hag’ Holly and the heavily stereotyped southern mother, Arlene. Director Luke Sheppard effectively judges the tone throughout, allowing these characters to provide humour without letting them deteriorate into the sitcom stock characters which they have every potential to become. The character of Brandon is never successfully developed, and hangs off the fringe of the drama as if threatening to mean something, but never successfully doing so.
Condou is withdrawn and well-measured throughout, excelling in the more intimate moments with Martin Delaney’s realistically conflicted Luke. Mitchell Mullen plays Luke’s father, Butch, with an astute level of authority, like a Tennessee Williams patriarch – always knowing yet always denying what he can so clearly see in front of his eyes. It’s the father-son relationship that drives the drama, and rightfully it is this that provides the climax of the piece.
This is an intimate and effective production, realised with some outstanding lighting design by Howard Hudson and an economical set by David Woodhead. There is a definite sense of sensitivity and compassion within the production, aided by Sheppard’s ever careful and perfectly-focused direction. Accents throughout are not wholly successful and clumsily hinder the dialogue that at its best is sharp and insightful, but at its worse plays like bonus material from Will and Grace
The frequent references to Thornton Wilder’s Our Town
, a play in which struggling actor Luke once starred as the omniscient Stage Manager, aid the poignant discussions of death and the afterlife, but highlight Nauffts’ lack of conclusion and spiritual weight. Heavy religious discussions seem trite and token, and rather than expose how a same-sex relationship can work alongside a relationship with God, Nauffts shows them as being mutually exclusive with no opinion on how it's possible for the two to be married without explosive effects.
Strong performances and stylish production values effectively paper over the cracks in this drama, making for a sentimental and emotional discussion that never boils over but fizzes with charm.
Next Fall is at London's Southwark Playhouse until October 25.