Director Joel Sass hadn't planned to see "Next Fall" on a New York trip a couple of years ago. It was a substitute for another show Sass couldn't get into, but he ended up so impressed that he pursued the rights for the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis. It opens Friday, with a cast that includes Stephen Yoakam, Garry Geiken and newcomer Neil Skoy as the central character.
So what got Sass excited about this first work by Geoffrey Nauffts, the artistic director of Naked Angels in New York?
"It has a great situation-comedy rhythm and an array of characters who seem stock types but ended up not to be the case," Sass said. "And you hear all the things you would avoid talking about at the Thanksgiving table."
Nauffts' play had its debut off-Broadway in 2009 and transferred into the Helen Hayes Theater in 2010, under lead producer Elton John. Nominated for a best-play Tony, it moved quickly into the provinces and the Jungle's production is an area premiere.
"Next Fall" throws several elements from contemporary headlines and talk shows into a pot and then stirs with a crisis. A young man has been critically injured and in a hospital waiting room, the significant people in his life gather to wait. Flashbacks illuminate how we got here and what's at stake.
The 800-pound elephant in the room is the relationship between Luke (Skoy) and Adam (Geiken). Luke, a devout Christian, has never told his parents about Adam, fearing particularly the reaction of his father, Butch (Yoakam). And so, given recently enacted laws, Adam likely would have a chance to get in to see Luke in the hospital. But with Butch in the room, the personal trumps the political.
Critics generally have liked the play, even though it had a short life on Broadway. Sass says that beyond the witty writing, he felt that Nauffts, who is gay, resisted the temptation to use Luke's faith as a cudgel. The playwright accepted the idea that his character held both his homosexuality and his religion in a tense balance.
"'Here's a play that is not polluted with stereotyping and demonizing and excessive simplification," Sass said. "It acknowledges that to be human is to be complicated, contradictory and confused."
Sass feels that Luke and Adam, for all their affection, are both unable to concede major points. Luke wants Adam to accept Jesus and "find a home." Adam wants Luke to tell his parents about their relationship. Luke delays. "Next fall," he said. "We'll do it next fall." The play, Sass feels, does not definitively address this tension, allowing it to exist as one of life's mysteries. Somehow individuals cobble together their competing interests and oddities and make it work. Often, love is the glue.
While that irresolution has annoyed some observers, Sass suggests that Nauffts purposely brought the volume and certitude way down in constructing the play. If the Jungle production is successful, he said, audiences should notice just that.
"Even scenes that are written as an argument, if you play them as an argument then you don't hear the argument," he said. "You stop listening because you're hearing the noise of people butting heads. If you lower the tone, you hear the argument."