By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Adam and Luke are the odd couple Neil Simon didn't write. Funny, gay and in love, they're the couple at the center of Geoffrey Nauffts' tragicomic Next Fall, now onstage at Kalita Humphreys Theater. The Dallas Theater Center production was staged by artistic director Kevin Moriarty and features six damn fine actors, all doing damn fine work.
Adam, played by WaterTower Theatre artistic director Terry Martin, is a nebbishy 45, a hypochondriac, atheist and teacher. Luke, played by DTC company member Steven Michael Walters, is 25, an aspiring actor and devout Christian. Sharing a tiny but chic Manhattan apartment, the two bicker constantly over couple-y things. Luke prays before meals, even breakfast, and believes in hell and the rapture, which Adam finds weird and annoying. Adam thinks every headache is a tumor, which Luke can't abide. They get a cat and hang Mapplethorpe nudes that Luke hides every time his gay-hating dad flies up from Florida. "Don't we have any unscented soaps around here?" shrieks Luke, rushing around to "de-gay" the apartment. Yeah, Luke's not out to his family. He's not ready yet. Maybe next fall.
But next fall never comes. Luke is hit by a taxi (we hear the squeal of brakes and a crash before the lights come up on the first act) and he lies in a coma in the hospital. Only in flashbacks do we see glimpses of Luke and Adam meeting at a party where flirty Luke is cater-waitering, and then how their relationship evolves over five years together.
In the hospital scenes in the present, Adam paces the waiting room with friends Brandon (Lee Trull) and Holly (Lynn Blackburn, still the most naturally beautiful actress in town), and with Luke's divorced parents, earthy Arlene (the throaty, thrilling Candy Buckley) and uptight Butch (Kieran Connolly). Their conversations are fraught with anxiety. Only "family" is allowed into Luke's room, and Arlene and Butch don't know Adam from Adam. Or maybe they do and just can't face the fact that their Bible-believing boy has a boyfriend.
It's as if Neil Simon's Odd Couple married Terrence McNally's Love! Valour! Compassion! and gave birth to a gayby. A perfectly nice genetic mix of snappy dialogue and heartfelt argument, Nauffts' play about people at odds over gays and God is not as relentlessly witty as either of those older plays. Luke and Adam don't toss punch lines or plates of linguine with the timing of Felix and Oscar. They're not as bitchy-hilarious or sexy-hot as McNally's Fire Island guys. Adam and Luke are quirky, neurotic and quick, though. We like them and want things to work out. Which they won't.
Next Fall has issues, and that's its problem. Those issues — religion, homophobia and gay partner rights, with mommy-guilt, addiction and living on the downlow thrown in for Big Moments — weigh heavily on the script's humor. For every comic beat, there's a whammy follow-up of somebody saying something trenchant that's supposed to wring a tear or make us shake a fist in solidarity with whatever side of the argument we support.
The play doesn't really start to click in a satisfying way until the second act, when it's clear there will be no happy ending. By then, we care about Adam — easy to do the way Martin plays him — and want him to exert moral victory over Luke's impossibly narrow-minded father, a man who can ask "Was the nigger a fag?" and not care who's listening. (Costumer Thomas Charles LeGalley dresses Butch in a Santorum sweater vest. Nice touch.)
That victory happens, in a way. But even better, at the end of Next Fall, Adam triumphs over his own self-doubts about his relationship with Luke. Nauffts builds the final scene to a powerful "conversion moment," but instead of finding God, which would be too obvious, Adam discovers for the first time what it means to feel truly and completely loved. The last 10 minutes of this play are worth the first 110. In his portrait of people knotted up over spiritual beliefs, the playwright arrives at something profoundly moving when Adam receives the blessing of total acceptance at a time of devastating loss. In that flicker of pure love, he is, and we are, at last, enraptured.
Tigers Be Still by TV writer Kim Rosenstock is Dallas Theater Center's other current production, running through mid-May in the small sixth-floor Studio at the Wyly downtown. Directed by Hal Brooks, it's a yappy 80 minutes of quick-cut scenes about a family of wackjobs trying to lift themselves out of various levels of depression.
Actress Abbey Siegworth, working at warp speed, plays Sherry, a recent college grad and family caretaker by default, who has landed a job as a high school art therapist. Her sister Grace (Aleisha Force) is home after a breakup with a cheating fiancé. Grace moves in super slo-mo, flopping on the couch in stained sweats to weep to Top Gun, a bottle of Jack Daniel's as her pillow. Their mother, depressed over weight gain, never leaves the upstairs bedroom. (She's not seen in the play. Sherry talks to her on the phone.) Dad took off earlier. And really, looking at this bunch, you would, too.
Everyone speaks directly to the audience in Tigers Be Still, a cutesy meta-device that grows tiresome quickly. Rosenstock, a playwright Kevin Moriarty has signed to develop shows for DTC, is a staff writer for the Fox sitcom New Girl, the one starring Zooey Deschanel as a dumpee who has to be pried off the couch after a break-up (hmm, sounds familiar). She works with words in the predictable, desperate-for-laughs rhythms of television comedy. In Tigers, you can feel where the cat food commercials should fall between the scenes in the principal's office (he's played by Chamblee Ferguson, who's adorable) and the ones in the paneled living room, where sis is drooling into a "dirty couch that smells like tears." (No one talks like that except in the precocious conventions of certain unbearable sitcoms.)
The cast here is better than the flaky material, particularly Force, who can make the syllables of "Chihuahua" into a bitterly funny curse at her character's ex. Playing the troubled kid doing art therapy for his anger control is young Christopher Sykes. What a find, with sweet, sad eyes and eyebrows that act independently. His character, Zack, has a quiet revelatory scene in a shoe closet with Sherry that's the play's only respite from breathless whimsy. If only Rosenstock had been more original, more theatrical. Just as things begin to get real, the shoe scene falls right back into TV-show mode, coming up one Jordan Catalano short of an Angela/Krakow moment on My So-Called Life.
And the tiger? It has escaped from the zoo and remains on the prowl, mentioned throughout the play. Despite many warnings, the cat, like the overweight mom upstairs, remains out of view, serving only as an overworked metaphor. Anger, grief, resentment, fear and fat — they're our cages, OK, we get it. These beastly themes simply loom too large for such a Chihuahua of a play.