February 9, 2012 | by Brian T. Carney
Romance and religion

‘Next Fall’
Round House Theatre
Through Feb. 26

Chris Dinolfo as Luke, left, and Tom Story as Adam in ‘Next Fall’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Danisha Crosby; courtesy Round House)

Sex and spirituality — or the lack thereof — intersect in thought-provoking ways in the flawed-but-worthy play ‘Next Fall,” a 2009 piece that’s enjoying a post-Broadway local run at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md.

Luke (Chris Dinolfo) and Adam (Tom Story) meet when the former gives the latter the Heimlich maneuver to ease a panic attack at a party. He later admits it was just an excuse to get his arms around Adam, who’s older (he reluctantly admits to 40), a neurotic hypochondriac drifting through life. Luke is young and cute, a promising actor whose career is about to take off. Opposites attract, of course, and a one-night stand turns into a long-term committed relationship.

The premise may sound like a Hollywood screwball comedy, but playwright Geoffrey Nauffts (who’s played Adam in previous productions) soon dives into more serious territory. There’s another serious difference between the two men — Luke’s a devout fundamentalist Christian and Adam’s a committed agnostic. And unlike a typical screwball comedy, Nauffts’ fascinating script focuses not so much on what brings the characters together in the first place, but on what keeps them together over the years.

The play opens in a hospital. Luke has been struck by a taxi and his anxious family and friends keep vigil in the hospital waiting room. They have been summoned by the tightly wound Brandon (Alexander Strain in a somewhat underwritten role), Luke’s estranged friend who’s a thriving real estate mogul who is also struggling with Christianity and homosexuality. Adam’s friend Holly (Dawn Ursula) runs the candle shop where both Luke and Adam work at various times and who searches for meaning (and men) in a variety of New Age activities. Luke’s divorced parents have arrived from Tallahassee, Fla. Arlene (Kathryn Kelley) is fighting her own demons and the ruggedly pious Butch (Kevin Cutts) willfully ignores the signs that his son is gay. As the present-day medical drama unfolds, flashbacks move fluidly through time, tracing how the two men meet, move in together and negotiate the many compromises necessary in any relationship.

Unfortunately, the heavy-handed production at Round House Theatre frequently tramples on Nauffts’ finely wrought structure and delicately crafted language. Where the scenes should flow seamlessly together, director Mark Ramont and his design team stop the action cold after every scene with slow fades, overwrought music and awkward set changes. These painful transitions stop the play in its tracks, leaving the actors to struggle to regain their momentum when the action resumes.

This fumbling treatment also extends to some of the acting. Kelley struggles unsuccessfully with the role of Luke’s troubled hardscrabble mother Arlene who abandoned Luke when he was a toddler. She never finds her way through the complex vocal and emotional shadings of the character, missing the potent combination of desperation and guilt and anger that fuel the character and fighting against the complex rhythms of the dialogue.

Luckily, Story and Dinolfo bring passion and electricity to the central characters. The openly gay actors display an easy physicality in their onstage relationship. We see the deep physical and emotional bonds that pull them together and we also see the tense spiritual doubts that push them apart. Luke desperately and sincerely wishes that Adam could find faith so they can spend eternity together. Adam hates the fact that Luke prays for forgiveness after they have sex and refuses to come out to his parents. Story and Dinolfo make these tensions palpable and draw us into their compelling story.

They also expertly use Nauffts’ rich language to full effect. For all its serious themes and moving drama, “Next Fall” is often funny. Among other things, Nauffts explores the intriguing way humor is used in different situations: as a strategic defense, as a coping mechanism, as a weapon, as seduction, as social lubricant, as a world view. He also depicts spirituality in a sensitive and robust manner, embracing the many ways his characters find their way through an uncertain religious and ethical universe. All of them are on serious spiritual quests, whether they acknowledge it or not, and these issues come naturally to the fore as Luke battles for his life. Nauffts also captures the ebb and flow of the various long-term relationships with nuance and naturalness. It’s a rare play that tells us everything we need to know about the characters yet leaves us wanting more.

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