"Next Fall," a wise and uncommonly witty play by Geoffrey Nauffts that opened March 11 in the Buffalo United Artists Theatre, takes place at the perilous intersection of religion and sexuality.
That place, across history, has resulted in more than a few fatal collisions. But in this show, all the common assumptions about who's right and who's wrong, who's innocent and who's to blame have been tossed out the window.
The play, directed by Buffalo United Artists executive producer and founder Javier Bustillos, opens, grimly, in a hospital waiting room in New York City. There, friends and family wait for word from doctors about their friend Luke (Danny Beason), who is in critical condition after a grisly accident involving a taxi.
Tensions begin to run higher with the addition of Luke's parents, Butch and Arlene, a divorced pair of born-again Christians, who seem completely oblivious that their son is gay -- not to mention that he's been in a relationship with his boyfriend Adam (Darryl Hart) for the past four years.
The play, which skips back and forth over time a bit too much for its own good, takes us back to the seed of Luke and Adam's first meeting, which grows over time into a complex relationship. The confident and affable Luke, much to the chagrin of his stodgier older boyfriend, has not let go of his Christian beliefs. "You don't have to believe in hell to run around thinking you're gonna burn in it," Adam says.
This produces all kinds of fascinating friction between the two, the point of which, it seems all too clear, is to demonstrate that prejudice cuts both ways where sex and God are concerned.
As we flash forward again to conversations among Adam and Luke's parents -- one a pill-popping but good-natured woman and the other a good-old boy -- we see that conflict come to a head.
Nauffts, obviously a master of comic dialogue with an ear for the ridiculous, has given Butch and Arlene some of the best lines in the script. Some of them are comic revelations of their characters' prejudices, while others are unprintably crushing questions asked without a hint of irony that let us see more deeply into Luke's incredible struggle.
Here's Arlene, for example, in an attempt to break the ice in the first scene: "That anesthesiologist seems nice. You know, the one with the hook nose and the beanie?" Adam, at a party with his friend Holly, describes someone at a party as "the woman who looks like she cries in her closet."
The most powerful moment in the play comes as Luke, in a flashback, nearly comes out to Butch (played with a convincing fatherly brusqueness by Walker). It is utterly heartbreaking and itself a moment worthy of the ticket price.
Aside from Walker and the odd lovely moment from Beason, however, the performances in this show do not quite live up to the potential of the script. You are nearly always aware that there is "acting" going on, which means you are less aware than you ought be of the play's potent lessons.
Even so, "Next Fall" is a worthy offering. It shows us that the moral high ground isn't always where we think it is.
3 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Through April 2
WHERE: Buffalo United Artists, 119 Chippewa St.
TICKETS: $15 to $23 INFO: 886-9239 or www.buffalobua.org