PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Next Fall — Having Faith in the Broadway Play
By Harry Haun
Meet the stars who celebrated the Broadway life of Geoffrey Nauffts' new play Next Fall.
Next Fall came a little early this year. Geoffrey Nauffts' funny and touching play, a hit Off-Broadway last summer, officially moved two crucial blocks uptown March 11 and settled on Broadway at the Helen Hayes Theatre, but, because Elton John — who produced the play with his partner, David Furnish — was booked for an Albany gig on the official Thursday opening, the two tossed "a special VIP performance and party" the night of March 10 for the press and some famous familiars.
The virgin producer and pop star was among the first to arrive at the theatre. After running the flash-splattering press gauntlet, he assumed his aisle seat of honor inside and watched the first-nighters trickle in, occasionally rising to glad-hand the hands extended to him, making himself accessible to all comers while his long-time publicist, Fran Curtis, hovered protectively nearby. When the curtain rose, he settled back in his seat to see — for the first time — what his moola had wrought.
Capitalized at $2 million, Next Fall tells a not-exactly-gay story of a gay couple in a crisis of conscience and faith — Adam, the atheist New Yorker (Patrick Breen), and Luke, the Southern-fried Christian (Patrick Heusinger). Their playing field is on a more human plane than merely gay.
The setting is a hospital waiting room, cleverly designed by Wilson Chin to permit flashbacks to pertinent moments in their relationship. It's populated with those closest to Luke, who has suffered an accident: the divorced parents he never came out to, Butch (Cotter Smith) and Arlene (Connie Ray); a near-lover, Brandon (Sean Dugan); a real and current lover, Adam; and a wannabe "other woman" to the central gay relationship, a self-professed "fag hag" named Holly (Maddie Corman).
All the implied issues simmering in these people come to full boil during the course of the play, and its last six words act like "open sesame" on the tear ducts.
The after-party that "The Johns" threw (finger-food and unlimited champagne) was held in the elegant stretch of lobby at The Royalton Hotel two blocks away — or at least I think it was. The dim-to-dark lighting made positive identification impossible.
At the end of the corridor was a really cool alcove reserved for our gracious hosts. Sir Elton held court there most of the evening, receiving congratulations and reveling in the excitement he had personally produced (in league with a handful of originating New York producers, too, of course). It was a pretty hefty roll-of-the-dice so why, one had to ask, would he take such a risk, sight unseen?
"Well, the script," he shot back pure and simple. "What happens in this play is so relevant to where America is at this moment in time with religion, with gay couples, homosexuality in general with 'don't ask — don't tell.' What it all boils down to is that we want somebody to love. We all need to have somebody to hold. We all need somebody. I thought this was one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I'd read in a long time. It's a wonderful play, and I'm just hoping it gets the queues it deserves.
"Listen: I'm as proud to have my name on this as I am on Billy Elliot. They're both really good pieces of work, and they both send out a great message."
So how did Next Fall find its way into his line of vision? "I know Geoffrey," he replied. "He's writing another project for me. It's a musical film. We're trying to make a musical of the film and have the film come out the same time as the musical."
Sheryl Kaller, the director who neatly negotiates the play through some tricky turns, was all a-fluttered with schoolgirl glee from a quick brush with the rock legend. "Elton loved my work, and I kissed him!" she crowed. "When you think about the fact that we ran Off-Broadway and they took all of us, it's great! A week into rehearsals, the producers come in and tell us that Elton John and David Furnish are on board — I mean, it's a fairytale. David, his husband, saw our third preview Off-Broadway with Stephen Daldry, loved it obviously and had Elton read it."
The play hasn't changed much from that incarnation. "We call this one Next Fall: Version 2.0, basically. We have added a couple of flies and the scrim, but the main thing we changed is we really focused it and fleshed out the characters more."
"I've always been interested in faith as a non — well, I'm not going to say I'm a non-believer — as someone who grew up without any kind of religion. Our world is so divided. It always has been, really, along religious lines, and I just felt like it would be an interesting exploration to put a believer and a non-believer together — it's a metaphor, in a bigger way, for our world — and, within that, I wanted to explore more political areas. I just felt like this was a good arena for me to do that in."
His immediate plans? "I've been writing for 'Brothers & Sisters' this season so I've got to go back on Sunday and finish up that. That's my job, along with running Naked Angels. Then, I've got a few different projects in the pipeline right now."
Like the Elton John project, just for instance? "It's called Showstopper," he said. "Anthony Barrele, a dear friend of mine who produced this show Off- and on Broadway, co-wrote with me a screenplay years ago for Ben Stiller. It's about a theatrical family, and it takes place in the world of Broadway. Elton came on board about two years ago to produce with Ben Stiller's company — and also to write the musical within the movie. Anthony and I are writing lyrics with Elton.
"We're working on trying to get a director. It's been a long time coming, but there's some new momentum behind it so I hope it'll be coming to a theatre near you soon."
It's a solid return to the New York stage for Breen, who has been partaking of the sun-kissed film and TV work on the other coast a lot of late. "I did a couple of series. It was fine. I still have an apartment there, but I'm a theatre guy, and I'm back."
Back, too, from the California vineyards is Cotter Smith, an old Circle Rep fixture: "My daughter was in high school in L.A. so I had to be in L.A., but she graduated, and now she's at Barnard so my wife and I have decided it was time to move back."
He also has a strong role to put him back in the stage marketplace. As Luke's pious, good-old-boy pop who prefers not to see his son's gayness, he is something of an unsympathetic sounding-board for the others to play off of, but he turns out to be the character who triggers the wellspring of tears. "I do like the guy," he allowed. "I find him very moving. I think the brilliance of the play is that Geoffrey doesn't judge him. He gives him his vision and his point of view in life, then at the end his soul is cracked open and he is exposed. He realizes he never knew his son. That you feel for him is Geoffrey's genius — he actually makes you feel for the man you hate."
As his pill-popping, loose-cannon ex, Connie Ray is all too aware of how the play and the players have grown since the previous engagement last summer. "I think it's because they gave us three more weeks of rehearsal," she proffered. "Off-Broadway, we put it up in two weeks. It was really fast, and we ran it. We didn't know it was going to run so long, but to come back, having done 85 performances Off-Broadway and get three more weeks to really work on it — boy! did it make a difference!
"We are a great ensemble. We knew we would be the day we met, and we are very close. I think one of the reasons we can go so far — because we have to do this eight times a week, and it's devastating — is that we know and trust each other. We do not phone it in. It's real, and it's painful, and this is the only way we can really do it."
The younger half of the cast — Dugan, Heusinger and Corman — particularly glazed over during the curtain call, this being their Broadway debuts and everything.
"I don't think I have words to describe what it is like to take that curtain call," Corman said. "The response we get every night when we look at the audience is so mind-blowingly lovely. It's a privilege, though. I know that it sounds corny, but it's like a privilege to tell the story every night. We have nights where we're nervous. The six of us are extremely close, and, when one of us is a little wonky, we just look at each other and say, 'Tell the story,' because it's such a great story to tell."
Redheaded Dugan seconded that: "It's a thrill to be on a stage you've seen shows in and get to see it from the other side — especially when the audience has just spent two hours being so appreciative and vocal, laughing in the right places, crying in the right places, that standing ovation at the end. You can't help but be overwhelmed!"
Chimed in Heusinger, "I don't think I'll ever have a better experience in doing a play. I really do feel that. I just told somebody the other day, 'You know, sometimes like in baseball the game's over in the first inning, or, if it's soccer, the game's over in the first minute, and this is one of those things where I may be mid-20s and this may be it for me, and I'm fine with that. I don't think I'll have the opportunity to work with such skilled and talented artists as the director, writer and entire cast are."
Among Sir Elton's eclectic "nearest and dearest" who glittered up the occasion were artists Terence Kohn, Pat Steir, Cecily Brown and Ross Bleckner; "Nurse Jackie" herself, Edie Falco, with actor-beau, Bill Sage; designers Helmut Lang and Donna Karan; Passing Strange's Elsa Davis with Mauritius's Bobby Cannavale (clean-shaven from his Thomas McCarthy flick, "Win Win"); Whoopi Goldberg and Sherry Shepard, two of "The View"; David Schwimmer; film directors Julian Schnabel and Milos Forman; stage director Gordon Greenberg; performance artist Laurie Anderson; "The Hours" author Michael Cunningham; comedienne Kate Clinton; B52s' lead singer Kate Pierson; political activist Urvashi Vaid; celebrity chef Eric Ripert; and Matt McGrath, fresh from opening Top Secret at New York Theatre Workshop the night before and meeting his real-life counterpart, Washington Post's George Wilson ("He's invited me to go fishing out in DC and I may take him up on it").
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