Today on Alphabet City: Tex and the City squeezes in some questionable religious training with Broadway’s Next Fall
My brushes with formal religious education have been fleeting. As a kid, my family attended a non-denominational Congregationalist church mostly because it was expected of my climbing-the-law-firm-ladder father. Later, as a 12 year-old, I very reluctantly suffered through confirmation classes at tony Highland Park Methodist at the insistence of my mother who was husband hunting in the over-40s single group. Then in my teen years filled with personal upheaval, Judaism enamored me during high school at semi-Semitic Greenhill mostly because wholesome families like the Levy’s, Strelitz’s and Frankel’s adopted me into their flocks making sure I was well-fed and loved.
As an adult, I’ve tended not to be interested much in religious dogma, often holding it at arms’ length. Even Chef’s Catholic upbringing doesn’t seem to pose many issues in our relationship—he left behind any self-loathing baggage back in Mexico. So when Next Fall by first-time playwright Geoffrey Nauffts opened Off-Broadway last season to resoundingly wonderful reviews, I resisted the allure of a gay treatise on faith, even if Gay Hall of Flamers Elton John and partner David Furnish produced it. But like a true show queen, a Tony nomination for Best Play after a transfer to the Great White trumps any personal trepidations. In short order, a one-night NYC opening in my Alphabet City book tour schedule cemented the play on my squeezed itinerary.
My expectation that the show would take a Tony Kushner-like heavy handed and heady approach to questions of religious belief’s impact on the lives of a gay couple was happily dashed. Instead, the fast-paced play is served up as a frothy living room (cum hospital waiting room) comedy with a steady mix of punch lines sure to please the hardiest Will & Grace fans.
The tightly wound hypochondriac Adam (Patrick Breen) is the latest and gayest incarnation of a familiar curmudgeon previously known as Woody Allen/Jerry Seinfeld/Larry David. A devout agnostic, the 40 year-old worldly Adam takes every opportunity to poke fun and lay bare the inherent contradictions in the fundamentalist beliefs of his much younger aspiring actor boyfriend Luke (Patrick Heusinger). The story reveals itself by jumping backwards and forwards in time as a collection of characters gathers in a NYC hospital after an accident. I don’t want to give away too much here because I think the movement in the story is expertly crafted, as is the cleverly packed-in set design by Wilson Chin. Suffice it to say there’s a motley storytelling and wise-cracking crew assembled: self-professed fag hag Holly (Maddie Corman), Luke’s Southern divorced parents Arlene (Connie Ray) and Butch (Cotter Smith), and Luke’s fellow fundamentalist friend Brandon (Sean Dugan).
Surprisingly, rather than being turned off by the accept-Jesus-as-your-savior-or-burn-in-Hell beliefs of the Luke, I was actually rather charmed by his deep hope that Adam would convert so they could meet in the afterlife. Heusinger’s quirky laugh and shoulder shaking body movements as he tries to explain his faith makes what he’s saying palatable and cute. Adam’s comic reaction to meeting up in the afterlife is what does it really matter—they evidently aren’t allowed to be gay in Heaven.
And herein lies my main problem with the show—while the play teases out Luke’s thoughts, hopes, dreams and background—Adam is presented solely as stand-up comedian. And no doubt, as played by Patrick Breen, he’s charming in that nebbishy way that I found so attractive in NYC guys when I first moved here. But there are almost no references to Adam’s background—how he turned into this rather cynical character that we all know from TV, and the real streets of New York. What’s that about his father dying and feeling bitter that Luke didn’t hold him that night? What’s that about Adam wanting to be a writer but leaving behind those dreams to be a teacher? Never mind, we’re onto the next set-up.
Adam was almost too funny all the time, so that when he has some heart breaking moments, it’s hard for us to understand his depth of emotion. It actually reminded me of the early drafts of Alphabet City that included no background about my previously dashed dreams of living in NYC or complicated relationship with my parents. My friend, writer and artist Aaron counseled me that in order for readers to root for me to succeed, they need to know something of my background. In Alphabet City, I can’t just start as a sitcom character with no explanation. Aaron was right then, and his advice applies here. I needed to know much more about Adam than just accept him as a gay archetype—especially since we delve so deeply into Luke.
Oddly, most of the other supporting characters are given more of an opportunity to break out of stereotypes than Adam. Maddie Corman endears her Holly with a terrific blend of pathos and comic timing so I audibly gasped when Adam meanly critiques her new age efforts to find love. “At least I’m trying,” she replies. We have to wait deep into Act 2 to get a similar sense from the mysterious Brandon, which Sean Dugan plays expertly with a proverbial bug up his butt.
Connie Ray’s turn as Luke’s on again/off again mother is mesmerizing. She lights up the stage from her entrance, and gets the richest dialogue—becoming the emotional core of the show. Unfortunately, that makes Butch, the stiff as a board father, come across as well, stiff as a board. He doesn’t get to have as nearly as interesting journey as the other characters.
But for a first time Broadway outing by the playwright Nauffts and director Sheryl Kaller, this is a tremendous beginning. Inspiring, really. I’m excited to continue to watch and experience their various journies—you made complicated issues of faith palatable to an avowed agnostic like myself.
Luke’s greatest role on stage, as recounted by his mother and Holly, was the Stage Manager in Our Town. Holly gives a delicious recounting of the plot, reminding us to cherish life and not take others for granted. To me, those words, from one of America’s greatest stage triumphs, are truly my religion.