Monday, April 11, 2011

Review - Next Fall - Jungle Theater - You Should See This Play Because It Really Pisses Me Off - 4 stars

[Adam (Garry Geiken) and Luke (Neal Skoy) - Photo by Michal Daniel]

I have to hand it to director Joel Sass, author Geoffrey Nauffts, and the entire cast and crew of the Jungle Theater’s production of “Next Fall” (especially actor Garry Geiken). Even though I see a lot of theater, it’s a rare thing indeed when a character onstage makes me so angry I want to scream and throw things at them. (I didn’t. But it took an awful lot of restraint.)

That’s not to say that “Next Fall” isn’t good. In fact, it’s extremely good. I’d venture to say it’s a far better production than this script dares hope for. The cast is crammed full of first rate actors. The set, also by Sass, is quite literally magical. Sound (C. Andrew Mayer), music (Greg Brosofske), lights (Barry Browning), costumes (Amelia Cheever), props (John Novak), you name it, all fantastic.

I have to give a quick tip of the hat to stage manager Elizabeth R. MacNally and her run crew because they made those transitions on Joel Sass’ set for “Next Fall” breathtaking. The gauzy curtain would pull closed and pause for what seemed like a fraction of a second and then immediately open again to reveal a transformed location. I knew there had to be a completely logical explanation for how they did it, but after the first couple of reveals I just stopped trying to figure it out and just embraced the magic. Each scene shift was a little helping of theater joy. (And if you read these reviews regularly, you know I never say that about scene shifts.)

And as much as the script drives me up a wall sometimes, there are a handful of moments in “Next Fall” that are damn near brilliant. That’s one of the many things that’s so frustrating (in a good way) about “Next Fall.” It could have been a great script, and it settled for good. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s through failure of nerve or simple laziness on the writer’s part but it made the evening equal parts thrilling and exasperating.

The thing I love about “Next Fall” is it required me to pay attention, to have my brain fully engaged, to care. I can count on one hand the number of theater experiences which asked that of me recently, the very thing I long to be asked for as an audience member. And I’ve unfortunately lost count of the number of productions that required nothing but passive spectating, and offered very little in return. This is the primary reason that even though it royally pisses me off in any number of ways, I’m telling everyone I know about “Next Fall” and that they should get their butts over to the Jungle and see it.

“Next Fall” is the story of the relationship of Luke (Neal Skoy) and Adam (Garry Geiken). Luke is a young aspiring actor and gay Christian who struggles with what his sexuality means in terms of sin and redemption. (Stop rolling your eyes. It’s so much better than in sounds in summary form.) Luke has mostly found a way to make peace with his divided existence, but falls in love with Adam, a would-be writer several years his senior, who never fails to push his buttons on the subject of religion. The script would have you believe Adam is an atheist, but I think he should look up the definition. At best, the guy is an agnostic and at worst he’s in tremendous denial regarding his feelings about a higher power, Christian or otherwise. Most of the stupid things Adam does appear to be because he’s terrified of dying and what that might mean. The couple must confront the specter of death in an unexpected way when Luke winds up in the hospital.

Luke’s hospital stay brings friends and family out of the woodwork - his eccentric mother Arlene (Maggie Bearmon Pistner), his stern father Butch (Stephen Yoakam), old law school friend Brandon (Sasha Andreev), and Adam’s female partner in crime Holly (Andrea Leap). What makes things tricky is that Luke’s parents still don’t know about his five year relationship with Adam. (Of course Luke’s parents aren’t as clueless as he’d like to think they are, nor as unforgiving as he fears they might be, but it’s always hardest to tell your parents, particularly when they make it clear they’d rather not know.) Adam thinks there’s no time like the present, in the midst of a medical crisis, to press the issue - one of his many mind-bogglingly awful ideas. Later, Adam wonders why Luke listed Brandon as his emergency contact. Well, Adam, probably because Brandon is capable of being sensitive to Luke’s family situation and doesn’t immediately want to make everything all about himself. Just a guess.

Adam also decides that now is a perfect time to assault the religious beliefs that are giving everyone comfort. He takes even the smallest mention of faith as provocation. This would almost be forgivable as a conceit if the conversations that resulted were at all balanced. One wonders if the playwright even knows any Christians, and if he does, did he bother to speak with them? Of course, if he’s like Adam, why would anyone engage in a conversation where they are sure to have their beliefs dismissed on the flimsiest of evidence? The problem is that it makes the arguments hopelessly one-sided.

For instance, one of the Christian characters doesn’t believe in evolution (of course). Because God and science are mutually exclusive. When are people going to get tired of this argument? Because it’s not an either/or proposition, any more than being gay and Christian is not an either/or scenario. Coming from a writer with an obvious intelligence and gift for dialogue, the script for “Next Fall” is often maddeningly devoid of any nuance of thought.

What “Next Fall” is very good at doing is prompting the discussions in the audience that the characters seem incapable of having onstage. My theatergoing companion and I spent the entire intermission in our seats debating the merits of all sorts of things that happened in Act One (to the point where I completely forgot to circle back around to the box office like I was supposed to and pick up my press packet). Once the play was finished, we were talking again until we realized the vast majority of the audience had up and left, and we probably should, too. Then I drove them home and even though we talked all the way there, we continued talking for a long while in the car after we’d arrived.

As I’ve said any number of times in the context of reviews dealing with productions tackling issues of faith, both my parents are ordained ministers. I grew up with this stuff. We can all quote chapter and verse. But we’re not blindly dogmatic “the Bible is the inerrant word of God” people either. Liberal Yankee northern Baptists, all of us. Having a gay playwright in the family has led to a fair amount of soul-searching over the years.

So someone or something sets off the Big Bang, which begins the universe. In all that unfolding and expanding matter, our solar system forms and on the third planet from the sun conditions exist where life as we know it can take root. Over millions of years, life adapts and shifts and changes and takes on many forms, ultimately leading to modern day human beings, with an amazingly complex structure. Part of that structure, the brain, is capable of wondering where we all came from, and starts to track that question back across the centuries to the beginning of time and the universe itself. Another part of that structure is the human heart, which wants what it wants.

I can understand some people being put out by the thought of being related to monkeys (even though I personally think monkeys are pretty cool). I can understand some people not liking the idea that maybe dinosaurs were here before Adam and Eve (still, if you read Genesis, the animals got here before we did anyway, so does it matter what kind of animals and for how long?) But honestly, isn’t anything that can set that whole spectacular set of dominoes falling over the course of billions of years and vast interstellar distances, and know the outcome, isn’t that the definition of a higher power, and intelligent design? God gave us brains and hearts (and yes, genitalia) for a reason, to use them.

Still, when the Christian character is trying to flout Adam’s argument for evolution, they say, “A monkey doesn’t have a soul. How do you morph from something without a soul to something with a soul?”

That’s how.

But this character is intelligent, and comfortable in their faith, and would know that.

It’s like the writer isn’t even trying sometimes.

Yet so much of the rest of the time, the characters just sing. Luke’s parents, Arlene and Butch, in the sure and capable hands of Maggie Bearmon Pistner and Stephen Yoakam, are a joy to watch in action. Not just the actors, but the characters themselves, are capable of such subtlety and love and (in their own way) understanding, that I was scratching my head why they weren’t that way consistently throughout the play.

Sasha Andreev brings a quiet intensity to the role of Brandon, and you can sense, not just because of the actor but again partly because of the script, that there’s something big coming when he finally gets to speak. When the moment comes, however, the writer has hobbled the actors with a peculiar scene that turns Brandon into another variation of Luke. And the impetus for the scene is Adam being unable to speak to Luke about the subject (Luke prays after sex), which is a strange excuse.

This is the main trouble with Luke and Adam onstage. I don’t buy that they’ve been in a relationship for five years and haven’t already had some of the discussions that they’re having now, this late in the game. Their first discussion of faith and sin seems to take place over breakfast the morning after they first have sex. So if the religious issue bugs Adam as much as he claims it does, they would have worked through a lot of this, for good or ill, long ago. So why don’t we get to see those scenes, or some of the scenes that are reported to us secondhand rather than acted out in front of us? (Luke prays after sex, just for starters. Or Luke being there for Adam when Adam’s father died.) Why, other than the fact that it’s convenient for the author to try and tell the story this way? For every moment that lands with real force, and there are many, there are just as many missed opportunities that leave me befuddled.

Speaking of missed opportunities, the lovely and talented Andrea Leap is woefully underused in the script as Holly. Most of the time she appears to exist solely to keep Adam from making even more of a nuisance of himself than he already does (which I’ll admit, must be a full-time job in itself). I just kept wishing she had more of her own stakes in this game somehow.

Adam. Oh, Adam. As I mentioned right at the top, Garry Geiken deserves all kinds of praise for his work in the role of Adam. Geiken is fearless. Even though his character regularly does things that make us want to shake him, Geiken doesn’t hold back. It’s a “warts and all” portrayal of a relentlessly self-involved individual. It’s what the play requires, and Geiken gets the job done. I can remember one, only one, selfless thing which Adam does over the course of the entire evening. Other than that, including the last thing he does just before the lights go down on the end of the play, it’s all about Adam, Adam, Adam. And the weird thing is, I think the playwright means for me to bond with this guy as my protagonist, to side with him against Luke’s parents. Much as I sometimes even wanted to do so, I just couldn’t.

At one point, Adam actually says to Luke, “I wish you loved me more than you loved him [Jesus/God].”

Seriously. He says that. The man has no filter.

There is not enough space on the internet for me to expound on all the myriad ways that is a sick, wrong, narcissistic thing to say to another human being.

Let’s just say, faith and belief in a higher power does not preclude the love of other human beings. (Just like God does not rule out science, and gay does not rule out Christian.) In fact, the two things feed one another. They are mutually supporting, not mutually exclusive. And we’ll leave it at that.

(The man even insults the teaching profession at one point. There’s always another layer of “Oh shut up” with Adam.)

Hey Adam, you want evidence of the existence of God? You’re a forty-something wannabe writer who’s in a long-term committed relationship with a cute actor in his twenties who finds neurosis endearing. Also, said cute actor wants to spend not just this lifetime with you, but the afterlife as well. If that’s not proof there’s a God, I don’t know what is.

It’s like the old joke about the religious man and the flood. A policeman tells the man to evacuate because there’s a flood coming and the man replies, “Oh no, that’s all right. I’ve been praying to God and God will save me.” The water rises, and a boat comes by and offers to give the man a lift. “Oh no, that’s all right,” he replies. “I’ve been praying to God and God will save me.” The water continues to rise and the man must take refuge on the roof of his home. A helicopter flies in and offers to take the man to safety. “Oh no, that’s all right,” he replies. “I’ve been praying to God and God will save me.” The water rises still more, the man is swept away, and drowns. When he reaches the pearly gates of heaven, the man says to God, “I prayed to you, but the flood still killed me. Didn’t you hear my prayers? Why didn’t you save me?” God replies, “I sent a policeman, a boat and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

Evidence of a higher power is all around us, and takes many forms. Love between human beings is one of the most powerful (let’s not even get me started on sex).

As good as Neal Skoy is as Adam’s Christian boyfriend Luke (and he’s very, very good), here again the writer is not doing the character or actor any favors. Luke and Skoy don’t have a lot of material to work with in trying to counterbalance Adam’s arguments. But Luke was raised in the church. He’s carried that part of his identity into his adulthood, even as he’s left home, and made the decision to leave law school and pursue an acting career. He’s his own man, but part of that man is his relationship to his faith and his God. He should have more ammunition at his disposal in these religious debates. He’s lived with it, struggled with it, all his life. He’s young, but he’s not a teenager. He’s got this figured out. But we don’t get much in the way of detail as to how he’s integrated it into his life. Dumb actors don’t get the part of the Stage Manager in “Our Town” handed to them, not at Luke’s age. The guy’s got a deeper mind, and a bigger heart, than we get to see. A richer character for Luke would have made “Next Fall” so much more moving, and funny, and thought-provoking than it already is. I’m not even talking about fundamentally changing the play. That’s where the play is already going. It just never gets there.

And I know that shiny happy people don’t make for good, conflict-filled stories, but do all the homosexuals in this play have be self-loathing ones? Being gay is a problem, even a sin. True love is unattainable or undesirable. Is that really the take home message “Next Fall” wants to leave us with? After seeing “Bare” at Minneapolis Musical Theater and the amazing way it integrated faith and sexuality into the lives of intelligent, thinking people - who still struggled, and mightily, some of them failing - I know that such storytelling is possible. Is one well-adjusted homo too much to ask for in the mix? Because when that’s the full picture of the world the play presents, I start to worry about what the script is saying to both the gay and the straight members of the audience about the totality of gay life. Or Christianity. Or any hope of blending the two.

Somewhere, tucked away in a corner of my brain, I understand the reality that not every play can be “Angels In America” or “The Boys In The Band” or “Bare.” But I see gay people settling for so much less in their entertainment. As long as a cute guy or gal takes their shirt off, we’re happy. (For the record, no one takes their shirt off in “Next Fall” - though I have to admit Neal Skoy is quite fetching in a T-shirt and boxer briefs, Sasha Andreev knows how to work a suit and tie for all its worth, and damn, Stephen Yoakam is an impressive looking man.)

Why should gay people settle for our stories being any less rich and varied than the vast majority of straight-oriented entertainment? We’ve passed the era of “suicidal victimhood” for all gay characters. We’re nearly through with the “everyone dies of AIDS or is a wise-cracking next door neighbor” phase. Plays like “Bare” and “Next Fall” are part of that next wave, where (gasp) gay and straight people actually live side by side in the same world and have complex problems. Imagine that. If you hold out the promise for gay people that they might see their lives reflected back to them from the stage, they’ll show up. Their straight friends often show up, too. You’re offering them the chance to see something they don’t get to see every day, still, even in 2011. So do something with the opportunity. Say something. Every play can’t be “Angels In America.” But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep trying.

All that said, there’s a whole lot to love here. Seriously, holy crap (no pun intended), you should see “Next Fall.” You’re not gonna find a funnier, sweeter, more exasperating play in town right now.

4 stars - Highly Recommended

Next Fall” plays at the Jungle Theater (2951 Lyndale Avenue South in Minneapolis) through May 22, 2011. For tickets and more information, visit

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