AstonRep’s NEXT FALL Is Saved By The Actors

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While watching AstonRep’s Chicago premiere of Next Fall, playwright Geoffrey Nauffts’ deftly emotional play now on stage at the very intimate Boho Theatre space, I was wondering if there was a script rewrite from the show I saw off-Broadway several years ago.   Mr. Nauffts’ play as penned is a roller-coaster of tears, fears, laughs and more than anything, understanding true love.  It is in that caveat of “true love” where the play should get its teeth.

Next Fall, which premiered off-Broadway in 2010 then made a quick Broadway transfer, tells the intricate story of Adam (Ryan Hamlin), a gay man in the throws of a mid-life career crisis who finds his “soulmate” in a young actor, Luke (Mark Jacob Chaitin).   We soon find out that this fantastic twosome is really a threesome, with the third being Jesus Christ, with whom Luke (and his family) is a devout follower.   After five years of being a couple, Luke is struck by a cab and near death.  When Luke’s parents arrive to deal with final decision, the pathos of the play ensues with their conservative, religious views at odds with the truth that actually lies before them.

What is profoundly different about this production then the one that was originally mounted is director Derek Bertelsen’s overall vision of Mr. Nauffts’ work.  A vision which in the end is unrealized on many levels.   For some reason, the focus of the piece is shifted from the choices each of the characters make and why those choices are made, to that of a mere diatribe on Christianity.  The result is that these well written characters become very one dimensional in this current invocation.  In fact, there were several times with AstonRep’s staging that I  thought I was watching a lesser version of La Cage Aux Folles, replete with de-gaying the house for the parents.  The only thing missing was the hanging of a huge crucifix and Jacob the “maid” running around with funny quips.

Bertelsen’s vision also get blurry in the details of the play.  Yes, Boho’s space is small (too small for most shows) but some very strong productions have come out of that tiny stage with some very creative designers and directors.  Next Fall just seems to be thrown together with bizarre scene changes and video projections that actually spill onto the actors.  As the play moves back and forth between a five year span, there is nothing on stage (or via the actors’ wardrobe) to suggest any of that much needed time dimension.   In fact, there is one scene change that actually garnered a laugh from the audience when they were wheeling out Luke’s comatose body through the back wall.   Chicago boasts some of the most creative and talented production designers in the country (which I just saw first hand at the Merritt Awards), so making this story work on the Boho stage should be a non-issue with the right team.  But if the director is not going to pay attention to minor details, such as having the lead character wear red pants throughout the show, how can we expect the actors to extract what the playwright intended from the piece?

Well, there is the rub.  The actors save this show and at times, make it fly.  Mr. Chaitin and Mr. Hamlin are both sensational in their roles as Luke and Adam.  Not once do you ever question their sincerity, truth and passion for one another.   By the time the end comes around, you cannot help but be moved by their journey.   Jim Morley is perfectly cast as Luke’s father who has a wonderful “Next To Normal” moment in the final scene, as does Lona Livingston as Luke’s former pill popping mother, who (as Mothers are), is silently all knowing of her son’s lifestyle.  Aja Wiltshire’s Holly keeps the friendships together and provides great emotional support to her best friend.  But the breakout here is Curtis Jackson’s brooding Brandon who is caught between the church and his sexuality.  Mr. Jackson character study is intense; and through that intensity comes deep sadness, all done with just a shift of the eyes.  When his final lines are spoken with Adam, his true pain and torture is released and therein you see the true breath of what the playwright was striving for.

Next Fall plays through May 25, 2013 at The BoHo Theatre @ Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago.  For more information visit www.AstonRep.com or call 773.828.9129.  For calendar information visit www.TheatreInChicago.com.