Friday, October 29, 2010

NEXT FALL • The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Organized religion can be a bitter pill for many to swallow.  Particularly if you happen to be gay.  That's the underlying tension in the Rep's Studio Theatre opener NEXT FALL, fresh from a Broadway run where it played the Helen Hayes Theatre from March to July 2010, garnering 2 Tony Award nominations for best play and best direction of a play.

It centers around a modern gay couple, Adam and Luke.  Adam (Jeffrey Kuhn), is a neurotic, sarcastic but lovable New Yorker.  He's also an out and proud 40 year old atheist.  His partner of four plus years, Luke (Colin Hanlon), is a southern boy -- an aspiring actor in his 30's and a devout Christian, who has yet to come out to his parents.  He prays before he eats.  And after sex.  He also believes that we all sin and that his homosexuality happens to be his sin.  Hmm…  Modern "Odd Couple" anyone?

Jeffrey Kuhn (Adam)
and Colin Hanlon (Luke).
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
© Photo by Keith Jochim
The play begins with the sounds of a car crash, the lights come up, and we're in a hospital waiting room.  Luke is in critical condition after being hit by a taxi, and while Adam is on his way, we're introduced to their friends Holly (Marnye Young), who owns the candle shop where they work, Brandon (Ben Nordstrom), also a devout Christian, and Luke's divorced parents Arlene and Butch (Susan Greenhill and Keith Jochim).  The subjects of homosexuality and religion rise to the surface and simmer once Adam arrives at the hospital and comes face-to-face with Luke's bigoted father, who has no idea of the role that Adam has in Luke's life.  Mixed in with these scenes in the hospital, we see through a series of flashbacks the night Adam and Luke met, when they moved in together, and how their differing views of religion have been a source of friction throughout their relationship.  Still, opposing views and all, they love each other unconditionally.  When life pulls the rug out from under this couple, and Adam finds himself in a cold hospital waiting room unsure of what's going to happen next, issues of mortality and faith are examined a little more closely.  Kind of... 

Susan Greenhill (Arlene), Jeffrey Kuhn (Adam),
Marnye Young (Holly), Ben Nordstrom (Brandon)
and Keith Jochim (Butch).
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis © Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
I wanted to love this play -- I really did.  Although it takes a look at some serious issues regarding religious faith, homosexuality and bigotry, the look seems to be only fleeting.  At one point when they're first getting to know each other, Adam and Luke get into a conversation about religion -- Adam cannot fathom how Luke can maintain that, according to his beliefs, if Matthew Shepard hadn’t accepted Christ before he died, he’s in hell, while his killers, as long as they accepted Christ as their Savior, would go to heaven.  Luke quickly asks to change the subject.  No!  Don't change the subject!  Let's go there and really pick it apart and look at it!  To me, both sides of this argument aren't really dealt with in an even-handed way.  Christianity and homosexuality aren't things you can swash over with a broad brush -- there's a lot of gray area, but the polar positions here seem to have been written with the efficiency of an after school special.  There are no easy answers when it comes to this stuff, but although the story is inviting and very moving, the resolve seems a little contrived and less than solid.

Susan Greenhill (Arlene), Colin Hanlon (Luke),
Keith Jochim (Butch) and Jeffrey Kuhn (Adam).
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis © Photo by Jerry Naunheim Jr.
Regardless of my problems with the story, the play does present some provocative themes that will no doubt be around until the end of time, and the performances are wonderful.  Colin Hanlon and Jeffrey Kuhn present a believable couple and caring about these two comes very easy thanks to the delicate direction of Seth Gordon.  Susan Greenhill as Luke's whacky free-wheeling mom Arlene is hilarious and provides much of the comic relief while Keith Jochim as his dad Butch is the kind of guy you just know has a rebel flag somewhere in the house.  He may raise your blood pressure from time to time, but it's evident there's a human being in there who's just worried about his son.  Marnye Young as their friend Holly, a self described "fag-hag", provides a source of comfort for Adam and Luke, and Ben Nordstrom as Brandon is a reserved friend with his own views on the issues at hand.  It's worth checking out, and will provide a little food for thought after the curtain call.


NEXT FALL

Written by Geoffrey Nauffts
Directed by Seth Gordon
Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
through November 14 | tickets: $18 - $45
Performances Tuesdays at 7pm, Wednesday to Saturday at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, selected Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
Susan Greenhill (Arlene), Colin Hanlon (Luke), Keith Jochim (Butch), Jeffrey Kuhn (Adam), Ben Nordstrom (Brandon) and Marnye Young (Holly).

Creative:
Set design by Brian Sidney Bembridge; costume design by Lou Bird; lighting design by John Wylie; sound design by Rusty Wandall; stage manager, Shannon B. Sturgis.

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