One of the best-reviewed Off-Broadway plays of 2009 was Geoffrey Nauffts' comedy-drama Next Fall, about two gay men — one an atheist, one a devout Christian — who fall in love and struggle to reconcile their differences. Commercial producers plucked up the play and placed it on Broadway, where audiences have been laughing, crying and discussing the work's ideas. The production was nominated for 2010 Tony Awards in the categories of Best Play (for Nauffts and his producers) and Best Direction (Sheryl Kaller). The playwright is also known as an actor, a screenwriter and artistic director of Naked Angels, which nurtured Next Fall through a multi-step new-plays developmental process. He spoke to Playbill.com earlier this year, in the days leading up to Next Fall's Broadway bow.
Playbill.com: When I talk to friends about Next Fall, I can't easily define the experience. It's a romance, it's a comedy, it's a tragedy, and it's a "problem" play and an issue play. I'm curious: How do you define it, what do you most respond to?
Geoffrey Nauffts: I feel so inept at speaking about my own work sometimes; you just did it so eloquently. I think that in the end Next Fall, ultimately, is about Adam and Luke, an atheist and a Christian who meet and fall in love and navigate their differences over a five-year period until a terrible accident happens and their two worlds completely collide. In my mind what I was setting out to do was an exploration of faith in this day and age. That said, I love the way that you phrase it: it's a comedy, a romance, a tragedy. I definitely think that it sneaks up on you, whatever it is. 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.
Playbill.com: Did you know it would have comic elements?
GN: Yes, whenever I write, I'm a laugh whore. I love funny. I love funny! I love to try to be funny, I don't know that I succeed all the time. But I do, I love things that are funny and then surprise you. I suppose I always knew. Again, in whatever I've written I approach funny but I also, in the end, I want to take that away. Keep 'em laughing, keep 'em laughing — and then go in for the sucker punch.
Playbill.com: Is the main relationship between Adam and Luke inspired by a real relationship? How did these come into your imagination?
GN: You know, I've always been fascinated by faith just in general. I didn't have any organized religion in my life growing up. I didn't have any kind of faith, yet I always had a certain fascination with it, I don't know why that is. I feel that I've suffered because of that. In many ways I'm grateful not to have had any of those constraints growing up. No one telling me, "You can't do this, you can't do that, because it's not 'right.'" No one except myself. But also by the same token I feel that there have definitely been times in my life when I've been envious of that comfort, that peace that I experience in people who've been in my life throughout the years. I think that was the starting point for me, wanting to explore that. Also, because our world right now and our country in particular is so polarized, there is a lot going on in terms of politics and equal rights — and the religious right on one side and the liberal left on the other. I just wanted to — without being too heavy-handed — take that situation and put it into human context. That really was my starting point.
Playbill.com: Are you a rewriter? You had the advantage of an extraordinary "tryout" last summer, if you will, which got amazing reviews. Did you rewrite since last summer?
GN: I have rewritten a bit. I've been working on the play for four years. I'm artistic director of Naked Angels, and I'm so blessed to have that company at my disposal because it's allowed me to develop this play and rewrite and rewrite. I'm a big rewriter, tweaker. So I worked on it a lot over the four years. After every reading we did, every workshop, I just went back to the drawing table and refined and honed it. This time around I've done a bit of that [after] getting notes from the director and the producers. We also realized that we had something special after the first go-round Off-Broadway, and we didn't want to tinker with it too much, with whatever was working. Playbill.com: I appreciate that every one of the characters changes in some way, sometimes incredibly subtly, like Luke's messy mother. She becomes a supermom, organizing and rallying when other people fall apart.
GN: She finally becomes a mother, in a sense, when she hasn't been able to do that for most of her life, really.
Playbill.com: This is sort of Drama 101: You want characters to grow or be changed by the end of the play.
GN: Yes, and I'm glad you picked up on it. I don't know that I started off thinking that initially when I wrote this play. I don't know that I thought of everyone's journey. I definitely thought of Adam's journey, the main character, and that was at the epicenter. I feel like I was very clear on his arc and how he transforms. But in rehearsal, and in workshopping and particularly in rehearsing the Off-Broadway production, I really started being able to flesh out the transformations for the other characters, like the ones that you don't expect necessarily to transform, like the Brandon character [Luke's Christian friend, played by Sean Dugan], for instance. You say there are subtle transformations. That, I love, and I don't know that everyone picks up on it, but we've started to examine what those are.
Playbill.com: Adam is neurotic. A hypochondriac. Are you?
GN: I am a hypochondriac. That I do have in common with Adam, so I was able to write about that.
Playbill.com: So you believe that every pimple is cancer?
GN: Yeah, you know, probably. I mean, I definitely have thought that in my life. It's tragic. The tragedy is I came to New York as an 18-year-old, and came of age in New York. Sexuality is a part of that, and I was a young gay man who didn't necessarily know that, and I struggled through it all coming of age and coming out in New York and it was all during the time when the AIDS epidemic hit. So it was an incredible time of paranoia and tragedy all around, and sex was associated with death, ultimately. And that's how I had my coming of age, and as a hypochondriac you can only imagine what that all meant to me. I was walking around the city in a rubber suit, not touching anything or anyone. And that was my whole first 20 years: "I don't want to get AIDS." That was my hypochondria. So when I finally got over that, I was old enough that anything was fair game. So then it became cancer because now I'm in my 40s. It never ends, so that's my own particular torture.
Playbill.com: In terms of feedback from audiences, what was the range of emotion expressed?
GN: You know, there was a wide range. The thing that I love the most in this whole experience is that people were so moved to talk and converse with each other and ask questions and take the long way home, and that is why I got into it in the first place as an artist, as an actor — I wanted to make people think and affect change in some way. It wasn't going to be through politics or through science it was through art, so I was really encouraged that that could happen.
There was a wide response. I think I was afraid because when I tried to put the play out there initially, there was what I perceived as some resistance from the gay community, from my gay brothers. Because there was a character who was a Christian and gay and had somehow worked that out for himself. And people, particularly men who had come from any kind of religion in their life and escaped it, they didn't want to see that. It was like, "I didn't want to see that person. I've spent my whole life running away from that, and I don't want to give it breath or life or examine it."
Playbill.com: They view Luke as self-hating rather than having integrated his homosexuality and his religious views?
GN: Yeah, and the other character as self-hating by association, as Holly says in the play. And I understand that, I really do, but I think that's the easy way out — the easy first answer. But if you stop, take a look and take a few steps forward and start to dig in there and explore, it brings up feelings and there are more questions, and so I was encouraged that people were able to do that. I really thought people may be blocked from doing that, and there are some people who say, "I can't get behind that, I can't buy that," but for the most part people really took the ride.
(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)