“Next Fall”

Play:        “Next Fall”

Group:        The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Venue:        Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square

Dates:        Through November 14

Tickets:    From $18; contact 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org

Story:    Adam was selling candles in a New York shop owned and operated by his friend Holly when he met Luke, an actor paying his bills as a waiter, at a party.  Thirty-something Luke immediately was smitten by the decade-older Adam, a frustrated writer whose life hasn’t turned out as he had hoped.  Adam tentatively accepts Luke’s overtures and thus begins their five-year relationship.

    It isn’t all sweetness and light, however.  Luke has never ‘come out’ to his divorced parents and, additionally, his strong Christian beliefs upset and annoy his atheistic lover.  The two issues prove to be constant irritants to Adam, reaching a crescendo when Luke is tragically injured in an accident and sent into a coma.  His parents are notified and arrive, along with Adam, Holly and Luke’s long-time, buttoned-down friend Brandon.  While they await further word about Luke’s condition, Adam is tested by the macho, braggadocio style of Luke’s fervently Christian father, leading to additional tension and confrontation.

Highlights:    The Rep celebrates its return to Grand Center with the regional premiere, and just the second production, of this two-act drama by Geoffrey Nauffts that opened off-Broadway in 2009 and after its subsequent move to Broadway closed just three months ago.  It was nominated for a Tony Award for Best New Play and garnered the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award for Best New American Play, and now begins The Rep’s 2010-11 Studio Theatre season under the direction of The Rep’s new associate artistic director Seth Gordon.

    Gordon makes an impressive local debut, showing a deft touch guiding an expert cast through a problematic and uneven script that both satisfies and disappoints.  He benefits from an impressive scenic design by Brian Sidney Bembridge that shows both the sterile, cold loneliness of a hospital and the warm and cozy apartment shared by Luke and Adam, courtesy of quick-moving assistants.

Other Info:    John Wylie’s lighting is especially effective illuminating the desperate hours in the hospital, while also softly focusing on a background near the show’s end that illustrates the work’s title.  There’s some haunting, beautiful music supplied by Rusty Wandall in the hospital scenes (as well as some not-so-special sound effects elsewhere), and Lou Bird’s costumes both delightfully and precisely convey the personalities of each character.

    Each of the talented cast contributes to make this a true ensemble effort, but special nods go to Ben Nordstrom and Susan Greenhill.  The usually ebullient Nordstrom is a study in control and calculation as the always careful, deliberate and pensive Brandon, a financial whiz who keeps his feelings as well as his cards ever so close to his impeccable vest.  His relationship with Luke is somewhat murky, although Adam manages to extract an explanation of sorts near the work’s conclusion.  Greenhill is a delight as Luke’s addled mother, Arlene, whose daffy nature helped contribute to her divorce 20 years earlier, but also reveals compassion and kindness that embraces reality and trumps adversity.

    The other players wrestle with their less well-written characters.  Colin Hanlon is engaging and appealing as the affable Luke, comfortable in his devout religion as well as his reassuring love for Adam.  He’s absent, of course, from most of the key hospital scenes, but his character’s presence permeates the entire drama.  As Adam, Jeffrey Kuhn effectively handles the unflattering flaws in his character’s fragile ego, culminating in the work’s incendiary, climactic confrontation with Luke’s bigoted father Butch.

    Rep veteran Keith Jochim has the thankless task of delivering the dialogue of what essentially is Butch’s stereotypical caricature rather than a well-written character, but does so with his customary accomplishment, all the while storming through the scenery in his cowboy boots and crisply ironed denims.  Marnye Young does what she can as Holly, a generous and kind soul whose character just sort of withers away from neglect as the drama unfolds.

    Nauffts’ writing is both accomplished and disappointing.  He’s created some vibrant characters and a compelling plot that offers several moments of lucidity and contemplation.  At the same time, he needlessly beats home a point redundantly, most egregiously in the work’s penultimate scene which is tedious, repetitious and nearly destroys the power of the scenes that precede and follow it.  Deletion of that scene would enhance the work by removing debris and accelerating the pace.

    “Next Fall” will appeal more to people who are motivated by its subject matter than by its execution, but on the whole does what The Rep attempts with any of its Studio presentations, namely make you think and wonder.

Rating:    A 3.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.