Wednesday, February 29, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Next Fall" at Diversionary Theatre

Glib and Be Gay?

Diversionary’s superb cast can’t overcome the superficial script and stereotyped characters of “Next Fall”

By Donnie Matsuda

For a play that strives to tackle so many larger than life themes – namely faith, sexuality, relationships, love, and hope – Geoffrey Nauffts’ contemporary dramedy “Next Fall” falls a bit short of its lofty goals.

While Nauffts’ play is at times funny and at times touching, it’s paper thin premise of two gay men – Luke, a young, naïve, devout Christian and Adam, an old, jaded, militant atheist – offers a largely superficial look at how these two men deal with (or rather, don’t deal with) their distinctly differing faiths over the course of their five-year relationship. With this work, it almost seems as if Nauffts is too afraid to delve deeply into the religiosity of it all, and instead settles for a two act, two hour long, sitcom-style play that simply scratches the surface of these deep-seated issues. And other than being labeled as “Christian” or “non-Christian” or simply “Spiritual,” there isn’t a whole lot of depth to the six stereotyped characters who inhabit the piece, other than a few laugh lines and a whole lot of talky dialogue that doesn’t really go anywhere.

Matt McGrath and Stewart Calhoun in Diversionary Theatre's production of "Next Fall." Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.

Even the play’s namesake is given short shrift. It is only mentioned once (and fleetingly at that) in the second act, when Luke proclaims that he plans to come out to his parents sometime “next fall.” Perhaps that’s a monumental event for Luke, but we as an audience aren’t let in on the secret as to why it is so ground-breaking and significant that it deserves to be the title of the play. Similarly, we hear Luke espouse the fact that he is a practicing “Christian” (although we aren’t given any more specifics about his faith) and he rather sheepishly admits to praying before meals and after sex. But other than that, we are left to wonder what truly fuels his religious fervor and, perhaps more interestingly, how does his faith inform and invigorate his relationships with his family, his friends, and his partner?

Full of half-hearted Christian quips, Luke clearly hasn’t internalized what he truly believes, which makes him no match for the razor-sharp wit of non-believer Adam, whose Woody Allen-style rants are less about religion and more about proving himself right. Clearly, the play opens the door on some hot-button issues, but fails to push hard enough to really make the effort worthwhile.

The story itself is straight out of a sitcom as Nauffts’ play opens in an intensive care unit, where Luke remains in a coma following an automobile accident. Luke’s parents – Butch and Arlene – are there by his bedside while his partner Adam is forced to wait outside as he is not considered “immediate family.” Also present is Adam’s bright and bubbly “fag hag” Holly and Luke’s ex-lover, a Bible-toting, bowtie-sporting Brandon. As everyone waits for news of Luke’s condition, the play alternates between the hospital’s waiting room and flashbacks to various scenes in Luke and Adam’s five-year relationship. It is a suffocating structure that doesn’t give the characters enough space to grow and evolve in their relationships and its strained storytelling ultimately comes across as more contrived than naturalistic.

Shana Wride and Matt McGrath. Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.

While the play frequently works against itself, Diversionary has assembled an incredibly talented cast of stalwart actors for this production whose winning performances rise above the mediocre material. Most convincing is Matt McGrath as the wonderfully witty and uber-urbane Adam. McGrath possesses a droll deadpan that is most suitable for the quirky role and he adds a great deal of smart and sophisticated savvy to his disdain for fundamentalist-based faiths. As aspiring actor (read: cater waiter) Luke, Stewart Calhoun is adorable both in his boyish good looks and in his free-spirited embrace of life and love.

As Luke’s father Butch, John Whitley could easily have played to the character’s stereotypically hick nature, but instead, he crafts Butch’s unflinching bigotry into a more complicated and calculating character that is quite compelling to watch. And Shana Wride is utterly intriguing as Luke’s mother Arlene. Written as a loud-mouthed, uneducated hillbilly (who firmly believes that Chihuahuas are from Puerto Rico and that Jews make the best doctors), Arlene is a tough character to portray as she subsequently morphs into a warm, grounded Mother Earth-type figure and then is exposed as a pill-popping drug addict. But somehow Wride is able to overcome the vast stereotypes and give credibility and heart to this complicated role. And rounding out the six-member cast, Jacque Wilke is incredibly warm as bubbly blonde Holly, while Tony Houck brings out the best in the underwritten role of Brandon.

Veteran director (and San Diego favorite) James Vasquez helms this stellar six member cast with a sure hand and a sharp eye. He keeps his pacing brisk and uses every inch of space on the long and narrow Diversionary stage. His contemporary vision for the show carries over into Matt Scott’s cleverly compact scenic design (which includes a storybook pullout apartment set), Michelle Caron’s edgy lighting, Shirley Pierson’s casual costumes, and Kevin Anthenill’s pop rock infused musical interludes.

Stewart Calhoun and Matt McGrath. Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.

Despite its overarching glibness, there’s still a lot to like about Next Fall. It is endearing in all its quirky charm and, most importantly, it allows Diversionary’s cast of talented actors to delve deeply into their eccentric characters and affect some engrossing and truly heartfelt performances.

In the end, much like Luke’s planned coming out to his parents, it is a Fall worth waiting for.

Things to know before you go: Next Fall plays at Diversionary Theatre through March 25, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. Tickets are $33 with discounts available for students, seniors, and military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 220-0097 or visit


A mini-interview with star of stage and screen, Matt McGrath

Matt McGrath (center, surrounded by the rest of Diversionary's "Next Fall" cast). Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.

DONNIE: Where did you grow up? And where do you currently reside? You seem to be in San Diego quite a lot these days….

MATT: I grew up in New York City. Which is where I currently reside although you would think I recently moved… huh?

DONNIE: In what ways do you relate to the character of Adam? In what ways are you totally different?

MATT: I am starting to recognize myself in Adam to a degree or aspects of his character I suppose. I always find a way ”in” through their sense of humor and sometimes I can’t tell which comes first theirs or mine, cause I like to bring mine everywhere I go. A strong character on the page though will emerge in performance and trounce any trick I may have up my sleeve by playing it truthfully. Our philosophies are different. Adam is comparing himself to others and always feeling less than. In his relationships, he can’t help but think he can change his partner on such a fundamental way. If you want your partner to change you may be with the wrong partner, right?

DONNIE: What is it like working with director James Vasquez (who also directed you in “The Rocky Horror Show” at The Old Globe)?

MATT: Working with James Vasquez has been great. Both James and I took over in "Rocky Horror" late in the game so we became fast friends in a very short period of time. I knew that James was going to be directing "Next Fall" at Diversionary and I am friends with John Alexander (Diversionary’s Executive Director) from when he was the managing director of the Off-Broadway company Naked Angels. So it all kind of fell into place.

DONNIE: Is this your first time working with Diversionary? How has the experience been thus far?

MATT: Yes. I was lucky enough to see Diversionary’s "The Equality Plays" about gay marriage and they were so fantastic and well done. That was my introduction to coming down to the theatre and it is such a great space and friendly community and something I want to support. Being here in San Diego and being a part of such a welcoming community has been great.

With John Alexander at the helm, I think Diversionary has a really bright future.

Thank you, Matt for taking time to do the interview. We look forward to seeing you back in San Diego sometime very soon!

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