Next Fall, Geoffrey Nauffts' ensemble play in which people of different faiths collide in the context of a tragic accident that befalls one of the characters, is a script that defies easy categorization.
It's a romantic comedy, it's a tragedy, it's a family drama, it's an issue play, it's a coming-of-age story. Whichever path you take into Next Fall — now at Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre after an acclaimed Off-Broadway run in summer 2009 — the notion of faith is central to the experience.
"In my mind what I was setting out to do was an exploration of faith in this day and age — of what it truly means to believe and what it might cost us not to," Nauffts told Playbill.com.
So, is Next Fall a comedy? Tragedy? Issue play? "I definitely think that it sneaks up on you, whatever it is," the playwright said. "And that was sort of my intention. When I've written other things, this is sort of the way I tend to approach projects: It starts off being one thing and you think, 'Oh, this is the ride I'm on.' And then it just starts to settle and drop and get more resonant and deeper and perhaps darker, and hopefully more surprising."
Developed in the playwriting program of New York City's not-for-profit theatre company Naked Angels, of which Nauffts is the artistic director, Next Fall is about atheist Adam and Christian Luke, who fall in love "and navigate their differences over a five-year period until a terrible accident happens and their two worlds completely collide," Nauffts explained.
The friends and family of Luke and Adam gather in a hospital lounge, and their stories unreel in flashback. It turns out that each character has a different kind of spirituality: Luke is a devout Christian who integrates his homosexuality into his faith, even if he's not out to his family; his father, Butch, is a conservative Christian with no room for secular ideas; his mother, Arlene, is a lost soul whose comfort is pills or pets, with the Bible as backup; partner Adam is a fierce atheist who gives into fear and hypochondria; best-pal Holly is a spiritual seeker who leans toward the New Age; and still-waters friend Brandon is a Christian who more privately processes the tension of his gay and Christian sides.
The frame of Next Fall — in a sterile waiting-room — happens to be in a Jewish hospital, Beth Israel, in Manhattan, further layering the idea of multiple approaches to faith.
Given the varying shades of spirituality that color the play, you imagine that director Sheryl Kaller gathered her troupe together last summer and engaged them in a long, intimate roundtable discussion about each performer's approach to religion, faith and the idea of God. You know — the kind of conversation to shake loose some emotional stuff that would deepen the performances.
"No," said Patrick Breen, who plays Adam. "We talked about the characters' faiths because the characters in the play all have different versions of faith."
"No, we never discussed it," Patrick Heusinger, who plays Luke, said. "I think I've only recently come to know what some people's points of view on faith are."
He added, "I certainly pulled from my own life. I went to Catholic school growing up, raised German-Irish Catholic in Jacksonville, FL, not far from Tallahassee [where Luke's family is from]. I've spent a fair amount of time in Tallahassee, and if there were differences between Luke and I, which obviously there are, there were so many people in my life who were completely representative of this character — so many people I grew up with, so many parents who were exactly like Luke's parents — and it wasn't too hard to take those experiences and imbue them into this man."
Kaller, now making her Broadway directing debut, said there was no purgative group-therapy session about religion, but some natural sharing did emerge over time.
"There was organic, continued conversation about faith," Kaller said. "The first time around — in the interest of full disclosure — we were on a very, very low Equity budget, so we got x number of hours a day, x number of hours a week. But what started happening was, we started sharing stories. We started sharing stories about our growing-up faiths…about how our faiths changed when we had children…
"…It started happening at lunches, it started happening when we were rehearsing scenes. We would do a rehearsal of a scene, and all of a sudden one of the actors would start crying and then tell a story. And isn't that what faith and religion is all about — storytelling? It's Bible stories."
Maddie Corman, who plays the Catholic-raised Holly, said, "The genius of Sheryl Kaller is that everything she does is on purpose, but she makes it look like it's just fun and cozy and snuggly. She's a big earth mama, and we all feel like we're just hanging out, but really she has a very clear plan. I think we talked about our characters' journeys, but our own individual faith didn't come up that much, and I don't know if it was on purpose or if we were busy talking about our children, our husbands, wives, lovers… And I think that we also all realized how precious certain things are."
Did working on Next Fall stimulate the actors' personal approach to spirituality?
"It definitely did, and it also made me more protective of it," Corman said. "It's funny, I think in our society…religion is still one of the most hot-button topics out there. We talk about sex easily, and money, and almost anything, but it's a very private, precious thing, one's faith. And so, definitely, it made me examine where I come from and where I am, but it also made me look at how judgmental I am. "I don't fancy myself judgmental at all. But I think what Geoffrey's play does so beautifully is turn on its head what you might think about someone who is an evangelical Christian or who is a liberal New York agnostic. Who are these people we think we know from that label, and we don't? I fancy myself this really open-minded artist, and yet I think I've been really judgmental and possibly missed out on some really great people because of what society chooses to label them, or what church or temple or whatever they might go to. So definitely I've been opened up."
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write him at email@example.com.)