Next Falls; Carnage’s God Rises at DTC

Steven Walters, Terry Martin in “Next Fall”. Karen Almond photo

“You won’t see me in a thong on a float, but I’m still a fag.” When the most grounded, believable, fully developed character in a play delivers a glib line like that, calculated to elicit a laugh, there’s not much hope for the other characters in the show.  Couched in a smug 1980’s “it’s naughty to be so hip” sort of sensibility, Geoffrey Nauffts’ paper thin opus “Next Fall” bats its mascara-smudged eyelashes at three plays’ worth of serious subject matter without delving deeply, or convincingly, into any of it. Nauffts aiming for a new series option after his ABC hit “Brothers and Sisters”, perhaps? With characters that feel indebted to a  “Three’s Company”, “Cheers” and “All in the Family” model, the play’s beats hold for television commercial insertions more than define moments or drive a relevant artistic arc. Pity the poor actors who try to create cohesive adult portrayals out of this trite muddle. No matter their capabilities or talents, they end up giving sit-com performances (without collecting that level of paycheck for all their hard work).

Secondary characters include an occasionally grieving, narcissistic mother, written very broadly to look utterly inconsiderate and garner guffaws, and a deaf, dumb and blind bigot of a father who breaks down (predictably but unaccountably) at play’s end, hurling himself while sobbing uncontrollably into the arms of his (unacknowledged) gay son’s (previously ignored) lover. Tertiary characters include a “girl next door” candle shop owner, perky eye candy with a hint of cleavage (to earn the under age 15 male television viewer weekly loyalty?). She just wants everyone to enjoy her scented candles (how 80’s) and not rock the boat by revealing messy personal secrets that might disrupt sales. More of a Pollyanna than a Debbie Downer, she says nothing memorable nor does anything to advance plot or character. Even less impacting to plot or character or theme is an androgynous youngish man, who lurks about scene edges, always wearing a disdainful scowl. He seems to function solely to tell the dead gay man’s older lover that he doesn’t hate his being gay, just his having gay sex with his now deceased lover. But he’s gay, too? Sort of? Candy Buckley, Kieran Connolly, Lynn Blackburn and Lee Trull meander through these roles, never quite seeming to inhabit the same playing space thanks to the script, uninspired scenic design and unfocused direction.

Comes the doomed couple: Luke and Adam, played gamely by Steven Walters and Terry Martin. Luke is a conundrum. Part “twink”, part spoiled manipulator, he is smart enough to get himself admitted to law school but “slow” enough in the emotional development department to more than inspire concern about his ability to function on a daily basis. Some reviews describe him as “lovably endearing”; he might be so if he were 8 years old. This character has bought into a fundamentalist pseudo-Christian bigoted belief that all gay sex is sin; he climbs out of bed to pray for forgiveness after every sexual encounter he has with his lover, does so for years. And he believes his prayer washes his sin away, every time. Utterly stupid, or a consummate form of blind denial? “True faith.” His mature lover Adam is an older, educated rationalist, presumably some form of atheist (no in depth revelation via script). For years, he has watched Luke mumble his post-coital bedside prayer without discussing it with him or objecting. Yet, the audience is to believe that theirs is a deeply committed, openly loving relationship. Ask almost any man or woman (gay or straight) how they would react to a lover leaping out of bed after sex to pray for forgiveness for “sinning”; except for a handful of masochistic self-loathers, eyebrows raise in dismay. They giggle or snort, roll eyes, exclaim they would not tolerate it, some quite graphically. These two men might have a fun fling; but it’s hard to fathom, given the characters as developed in this script, why Adam would put up with Luke, or take him seriously, for any length of time. It’s not politically correct to question the worth of any work of art that purports to address “gay themes”; guess that’s why this play received Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations. The nominations certainly did not arise from its evocative text or memorable characters. As much as Walters’ and particularly Martin’s work as actors merit praise (both men strive valiantly to create viable characters with coherent arcs), they never develop a palpable chemistry. The play just doesn’t allow it.

The set, by John Arnone, disappoints, as well, with its mundane flatness. The main playing space of the Kalita Humphreys Theater offers one of the most exciting, flexible opportunities for design in the region, in terms of depth and multiple playing levels, in terms of the potential use of its revolve.  (See how well Dallas Theater Center uses this space in its yearly “A Christmas Carol” or its 2011 production of “Arsenic and Old Lace”). Director Kevin Moriarty confines his “Next Fall” cast to playing on one level, mostly on one line, as if they were performing in a small, tight proscenium theater with limited entry point, wings or flying space scenery options. There is small difference between downstage and upstage in this production. A huge bank wall of linear modules in bright neon hues dominates the scene, with double doors center, indicating “hospital”, and auxiliary doorway entrances on either side. A few pieces of living room furniture, shoved on or off by actors in front of the neon wall, designate the men’s apartment. Spot lighting left or right of the central playing area creates other flashback scenes. It’s an oddly conventional, unimaginative, flat use of a marvelous playing space, very disappointing. “Next Fall” runs through May 6.

Yasmina Reza’s sultry, text-nimble “God of Carnage”, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton, opens May 11, 2012. Directed by Joel Ferrell, just named DTC Associate Artistic Director, this production promises a thrilling, erudite evening of fine theatre. Look forward to watching Sally Vahle, Christina Vela, Hassan Al-Amin and Chris Hury spar with savagery. Given the focus of DTC’s upcoming season, it may be the only chance to see these fine professionals, three of them members of the DTC Brierley Resident Acting Company, on stage for a while.

Tickets: www.dallastheatercenter.org

 Criticalrant review of DTC’s 2011 production of “Arsenic and Old Lace”: https://criticalrant.com/2011/02/18/betty-buckley-the-elderberry-wine-hustle-dallas-theater-center/

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