THEATER REVIEW: “Next Fall” couple are a gay Fundamentalist and an agnostic, facing a medical crisis and family issues

(Critic’s note: Religions have demonstrably divided individuals, families and countries and have, in my opinion, caused more problems than they have ever alleviated or solved. I have attempted objectivity here, but keep the foregoing in mind as you read this review.)

Luke (Stewart Calhoun) is young, personable, hot, gay – and a fundamentalist Christian who routinely prays for forgiveness after sex.

Adam (Matt McGrath) is a grumpy, nebbishy hypochondriacal agnostic, unable to comprehend how anyone can believe what Luke says he believes.

It’s a perfect match, right? They meet cute at a party and have been together for the five years depicted in Geoffrey Nauffts’ “Next Fall,” playing through March 25 at Diversionary Theatre. James Vasquez directs.

Now family and friends gather in a hospital waiting room where Luke has been taken after a potentially fatal traffic accident. In the group is Holly (Jacque Wilke), who owns the candle shop where wannabe actor Luke works.

Luke’s long-divorced parents fly in from Florida. Butch (John Whitley) is an impatient, Bible-toting take-charge type who brooks no nonsense (being gay would qualify as nonsense, but he refuses to admit he knows that Luke is in that group).

Luke’s mother Arlene (Shana Wride) is a recovered wild woman whose wildness caused her to miss most of Luke’s childhood. She has a heart of gold and a motormouth.

The sixth, rather puzzling character is Luke’s old friend Brandon (Tony Houck), a Bible-wielding gay who does not allow himself to love.

When Adam arrives late from his high school reunion and wants to visit Luke, the divide is set. The doctors are limiting visits to family only, and Butch doesn’t accept Adam’s claim to that title.

Nauffts flashes back to earlier days in the Luke-and-Adam story and those arguments about belief. Luke has to admit that his faith forces him to believe that if Matthew Shepard’s killers accepted Jesus and Shepard did not, the killers would go to heaven but Shepard would not.

Nauffts, an actor by trade, has a way with a clever riposte, and “Next Fall” (that’s when Luke is planning to come out to Butch) is fairly consistently engaging in this regard.

The problem with it is the contrived nature of the Luke/Adam pairing. It’s difficult to believe that anyone as committed as Luke says he is would be interested in a partnership with a nonbeliever. And if he’s not, why are we here?

Another problem is the afterthought role of Brandon. Is there really a gay out there who has bifurcated himself so much as to deny himself the human instinct to love just because some book tells him he must? And even if there is, what dramatic purpose does the character serve in this play?

Vasquez has directed this piece with a sure hand, and is blessed with an excellent cast. Wride has the showpiece role – and makes the most of it – as Arlene, making us sympathize with the type of character many of us would flee at a party.

Kudos to Matt Scott for his versatile set, which changes easily from the hospital waiting room to Luke and Adam’s cramped Manhattan apartment.

Wilke is delightful as the yoga-inspired candle shop owner. Whitley is properly – well, scary is the word that comes to mind, as the unbending Butch.

Houck makes the most of the odd role of Brandon.

McGrath’s Woody Allen-like Adam makes a fine comedic counterpoint with believer Luke, but neither’s belief system seems deeply rooted. Perhaps Nauffts would have been better served to have written a comedy. Period.

The details

“Next Fall” plays through March 25 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd.

Thursday through Saturday and Monday, Feb. 27 at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call (619) 220-0097 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.

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