'Next Fall' fights for survival

By Joseph Hurley

"Next Fall" • at the Helen Hayes Theater, 240 West 44th St., NYC • Open-ended run

One of the most rewarding of recent American plays, with two first-rate Irish-American actors in the cast, has made the risky jump from off-Broadway to Broadway, only to find itself fighting for its life in a difficult economic climate.

The play in question, "Next Fall," by Geoffrey Nauffts, opened to excellent reviews several months ago at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, a couple of levels above Playwrights Horizons' main auditorium. As the sold-out run approached its conclusion, an imminent transfer to Broadway seemed certain. Contrary, however, to the company's expectations, several months passed before the move actually took place, by which time cast members were close to giving up hope.

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The Helen Hayes Theater seemed an ideal venue for the play, a darkish comedy with serious underpinnings, a small cast, and modest production requirements.

Nauffts's play deals with a long-term same-sex domestic relationship involving a committed atheist and apparently non-observant Jew, Adam, 40, and a much younger man, Luke, who was raised in a dysfunctional family of Southern fundamentalist Christians.

One of the two Irish-American actors, Patrick Breen, plays Adam richly, while the other, Sean Dugan, has the difficult role of Brandon, a person in the hospital waiting room in which much of the play is set. Brilliantly delivered by Dugan, Brandon, an oddly opaque figure, apparently not attached to anyone else in Nauffts' equation, remains a mystery until late in the play.

Nauffts, artistic director of the esteemed production organization, Naked Angels, since the fall of 2007, has, until now, been best known as an actor and director, although he has a few writing credits as well.

As a playwright, Nauffts' main concern in "Next Fall" is the difficulty that wildly divergent individuals can expect to encounter as they attempt to make peace with their differences. He resorts to a convenient traffic accident to resolve his plot and to bring his characters together in that hospital setting.

Luke, potently rendered by Patrick Heusinger, has been in a seriously injured, and his divorced parents, Arlene and Butch, have been summoned. Also present are Brandon and Holly, the latter a candleshop owner for whom one of the lovers has worked.

Luke's devout, judgemental parents know little about their son's life in New York, and nothing about his relationship with Adam.

Like several other recent Broadway productions, "Next Fall" has encountered rough sledding in these economically difficult times. The revival of William Gibson's "The Miracle Worker" closed quickly, as did the scaled-down new production of the musical based on E.L.Doctorow's novel, "Ragtime."

On a brighter note, the Tony Award winning musical, "Next to Normal," as modestly produced as "Next Fall," has very recently recouped its investment, achieving a goal which, with luck, Nauffts' play hopes to attain in time.