Monday, October 3, 2011

O come, all ye faithful

Dan Roach and Will McGarrahan shoot first and pray later in Next Fall.
There has long been a certain gap in intellectual ambition at SpeakEasy Stage, as I've lamented before, but their production smarts often made that easy to forgive. Now my recent falling-out with them may have made me less forgiving, or their programming may indeed have become more under-achieving, I'm really not sure;  but their current show, Next Fall,  only seems to up the ante on their trend line; it's an exquisitely produced gay weepie, and jeez, is it dumb.

To be fair, you can generally count on some intellectual edge from SpeakEasy founder Paul Daigneault, or longtime director Paul Melone.  But Next Fall is a Scott Edmiston show.  Which means every edge in it has been sanded down to a soft curve; as it grinds on, you realize every failing will be understood, every shortcoming will be sympathized with - and every falling tear will glisten like a sweet trickle of sap.

I'm not sure when, exactly, Edmiston became our sultan of sap.  He used to throw the occasional marvelous party, but now he prefers pity parties (his last production was of a play about a Jewish boy who wanted to paint his mother on the cross; I'm not kidding).   Which is too bad, it seems to me. Edmiston has a light, secure touch, particularly with comedy; why can't he stick to light, funny shows?  Actually, he has stuck with the "light" part this time; though it pretends to various depths, Next Fall is obviously superficial - not the tragic love story it styles itself as, but instead another narcissistic coming-out story in disguise, this time played out at death's door.

For yes, playwright Geoffrey Nauffts has dragged out of the closet the central melodramatic convention of the AIDS era - the hottie dying young - and dusted it off just as if nothing had really changed about being gay in America.  This time said hottie - "Luke," played by Dan Roach - has been struck down by a passing cab rather than a virus, but just about everything else about Next Fall is comfortingly familiar: the bigoted, clueless parents, the relationship Luke kept in the closet, the quirky girlfriend, even the candle shop - they're all there.  We often feel we're in a Movie of the Week from 2005. Or maybe 1995.  Or even 1985.

The "twist" this time around, though, is that Luke is a Christian.  He actually prays after he ejaculates, in fact.  He's expecting the Rapture.  In short, he deserves to die!  I mean - praying after sex is understandable in a nineteen-year-old at Bible camp, but in a thirty-something hottie in Chelsea?  Please.  And as for the "critique" of Christianity that SpeakEasy seems to think this play is mounting - again, puh-leeeze.  Critiquing Christian prejudice against gays is like shooting loaves and fishes in a lavender barrel.  In the past, SpeakEasy has made hilarious theatrical hay with actual faiths like Catholicism - which for all its horrors and flaws is still a genuine moral and intellectual edifice.  You can critique it - there's a hypocrisy there to get angry about.  But post-Protestant "Christianity" is only a handshake and a haircut; there's just nothing there; you can't satirize it, it's already self-satire.

But the politics of Next Fall are really just feints from the main event, anyhow, which is the extended coming-out party of Adam (Will McGarrahan), Luke's lover.  For once poor, closeted Luke has landed in the ER, there is suddenly a lot of 'splainin' to do in the waiting room!  Especially to bigoted, macho dad Butch (Robert Walsh).  (I know, I know . . . "Luke," "Adam," "Butch"!  Don't get me started.)

Now there probably is a solid play to be drawn from this set-up; but it would have to be drawn from the real world, in which the terrible choices of life-and-death situations were given their full force.  But even as Luke approaches brain death, and his eyes are about to be harvested, Nauffts keeps the focus on Adam and how no one will really accept him as he is, as if life were one long encounter group at some high school's Gay-Straight Alliance.  It doesn't even seem to occur to Adam that maybe it's not about him anymore, or that he and Luke painted themselves into this particular corner, and that maybe it's time to shed a tear for his dying lover rather than himself.  And while Nauffts indicates here and there that he's aware Adam's fabulous gay lifestyle isn't much help with the great beyond, he seems unable to allow his Christians - who do, after all, have a kind of angle on "end-times" - any real spiritual credit; he can't complicate his caricatures enough to allow them a true dialogue.  Instead he takes cheap shots to punch things up, like saddling Butch with the n-word, as if he were frying up squirrel in some broken trailer in backwoods Alabama.

Given the limits of the play, I suppose it's a credit to Edmiston and the expert cast he has drawn together (as he always does) that a few tears are, indeed, expertly teased from Next Fall.  The stand-outs are the reliable Amelia Broome, who makes light work of Luke's chatty, wounded mom, and Robert Walsh, who brings more sympathetic skill to the role of Butch than perhaps it deserves.  Meanwhile Will McGarrahan is his usual poised, ruefully witty self as Adam, but I simply didn't believe in his love for Luke - who was made a pretty, but also a pretty empty, vessel by Dan Roach.  To be fair, however, McGarrahan does pull off a moving coming-out duet with Broome, and Roach actually gets through Nauffts's Guiding-Light-level finale.  And around the edges of the production there were intriguing turns by Deb Martin and Kevin Kaine, who simply didn't have enough to do.  The detailed design work is by Janie E. Howland; the predictable but appropriate score by Dewey Dellay.  I wish all these people were working on something more ambitious, but hey, at least they've got work, right?  And no doubt they'll be working again soon, frankly; because all things being equal, something tells me we'll be seeing a play much like this one from SpeakEasy Stage - perhaps as early as next fall.

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