Right up to and almost through the 1960's, the love that dare not speak its name, as memorably and poetically phrased about same-sex romance by Alfred, Lord Douglas--Oscar Wilde's Bosie--certainly dared not speak its name on stage, not even in hushed tones.
Homosexual playwrights couldn't take the dare; heterosexual playwrights felt no need. Wilde certainly dared not incorporate homosexuality (not that he had the word yet) into his five plays, including the steamy Salome. Terence Rattigan never broached it, nor did Noel Coward--notably not in his otherwise expressly autobiographical Present Laughter. Tennessee Williams only referred to it obliquely in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It wasn't until 1968 that the subject was tackled and elaborated on with grit. The seminal play is, of course, Mart Crowley's dark comedy, The Boys in the Band.
But now, thanks to Crowley, times have changed. Gay men in love or in some form of attachment are populating the theater--and certainly multiple New York City venues. By 2010, the abundant offerings are not only speaking their love's name, they're shouting it to such an extent that heterosexual liaisons are almost elbowed out of view.
Currently, prominent productions include the highly successful site-specific Boys in the Band revival, English import The Pride by Alexi Kaye Campbell that contrasts shifting homosexual lifestyles between 1958 and 2008, Jon Marans's quasi-documentary The Temperamentals about the founding of the dared-to-speak-its-name Mattachine Society and the musical Yank! with its gander at explicit male bonding during World War II. Plus there's the Naked Angels production of Geoffrey Nauffts's Next Fall at the Helen Hayes, just transferring from Playwrights Horizons, where it had an extended run last summer,
There's much to commend about the quality of each of these--and it's unlikely this is a complete list--but hardly enough can be said about Nauffts's Next Fall, which contains a crucial element that marks the best theater writing: It's both remarkably simple and exceedingly complex. The storyline is simplicity itself. Luke (Patrick Heusinger)--mostly seen in flashbacks and then once on a hospital bed--is in a coma induced by a subdural hematoma inflicted during a traffic accident. His born-again right-wing father Butch (Cotter Smith) and chatty mother Arlene (Connie Ray), 20 years divorced, are awaiting developments in an ante-room along with Luke's friends Holly (Maddie Corman) and Brandon (Sean Dugan) and Luke's five-year domestic partner, Adam (Patrick Breen).
The primary complication is that Luke has never been able to tell either of his parents that he's not only gay but lives with Adam. The only time Butch (note the macho moniker) visits in one of those lengthy flashbacks, Luke skirts the touchy confession by "de-gaying" their apartment and dispatching Adam. But Adam's anger at the situation has built to the point where he's barely able to keep from blurting the truth to Butch now that they've been brought together under the difficult circumstances.
Where Nauffts--who's spent more of his theater career acting rather than writing plays--excels is in refusing to turn the Adam-Butch confrontation into a black-and-white tableau. Before he brings his two-act work to a close, he's finds a way to side with--and to some extent against--each of his characters as he mixes and mingles their encounters so that their sympathetic and less sympathetic aspects emerge. His is a profoundly humanitarian view--as if he's saying about each of them, ""Don't be too quick to judge any of these six basically good people."
Perhaps Nauffts's most intriguing twist is the one he gives the Luke-Adam relationship. Luke, though a happily practicing gay man, is also a devout Christian, sure that his transgressions will be forgiven in Jesus's eyes. Adam is unable to accept this view of life and, especially, of an after-life. It's a debate that continues through their years together, its resolution only becoming clear to Adam towards the rather benevolent denouement Nauffts arranges for his multi-faceted figures. In scene after scene--not a single one a word too long or short--he reveals additional traits and concatenations that make them utterly believable and, for their truly minor failings, recognizable, understandable, commendable and forgivable.
When such three-dimensional characters are on offer, directors revel in the chance to round up actors ready to revel in their assignments. Guided confidently by Sheryl Kaller, this is a cast, in which there's no first among equals. Each receives and responds to continual opportunities to shine. Look for ensemble awards to come their aggregate way at season's end.
But wait, there's one last observation to be made in Next Fall's favor: While speaking its assailed name, it's consistently witty. Oh, those throwaway verbal thrusts and parries. More than that, it contains the kind of quips that prompt not one but two waves of laughter. This is rare.