Next Fall, which recently opened on Broadway, is the most profound, hilarious, and culturally important play I have seen in years. If you are among the 10% of Americans on each of the ideological extremes of the right and left, absolutely certain you know what is true and right regarding God, religion, faith, sex, morality, love, and death and you are angry with anyone with whom you disagree, this play is not for you. But if you are among the 80% of Americans who feel something is deeply wrong in our public culture, are exhausted by the stereotyping, simplifying, demonizing and polarizing in our media and know that life is messy, people are complicated and that despite our radically different worldviews we can somehow understand each other, you should run to see this play. Oh, and if you want to laugh and cry and learn about yourself, others, and life, Geoffrey Naufft's well crafted, smart, and beautifully acted play is a Godsend.
Luke is a twenty-something, sexy, waiter-aspiring actor in a long-term relationship with Adam, a hypochondriac, hypercritical, hyper-underachiever who works in a candle store. Luke is also a fundamentalist Christian, not the fierce kind we are use to seeing - as is his father - rather, Luke is gentle, playful, and loving. He believes he is sinning every time he makes love with Adam and sometimes even prays for forgiveness after sex. All people sin, he explains, and homosexual intimacy is his sin but his perfect faith in Jesus will save him: he will be forgiven and go to heaven. He only wishes Adam would love God as he does so he too would go to heaven. Alas, Adam is a confirmed cynic, a non-believer, and a witty acerbic one at that. How Luke could believe such nonsense is beyond him. How Luke could love a person while at the same time believe that person will go to hell is maddening. How Luke can affirm that the killer of Matthew Shepard, if a true believer in Jesus the Savior, goes to heaven but the murdered Matthew Shepard, who is not a believer, goes to hell is enraging. Adam and Luke love each other.
The play takes place as Luke is lies comatose in a hospital bed seriously injured in a car accident. Gathered in the waiting room are Adam, Luke's divorced parents - his father, Butch, a severe hard core Christian creationist, his mother Arlene, a well-intentioned "recovering" drug addict, Luke's friend and former lover Brandon, and Holly the New Age owner of the candle store in which Adam works. In a series of flashbacks spanning Adam and Luke's relationship, we learn that Luke is terrified of his father and has not come out to his parents. Adam desperately wants Luke to tell his father about their relationship just as desperately as Luke wants Adam to believe in Jesus. Each, out of genuine love, wants the other to let go of his fears and surrender to the truth each sees so clearly. Luke's pure faith in his Father in Heaven is matched only by a fear of disappointing and angering his earthly father. Adam finds heaven and hell, Noah's Ark, the virgin birth, resurrection, and other such stories completely delusional and yet so wishes Luke would love him as much as Luke loves Jesus.
Cultural war issues are touched upon with humor and biting insight, and with anguish as we see the painful inequality between gay couples and married couples in the right to deal with issues of life and death. But as each character offers the expected belief and opinion something strange happens. No one in this play fits neatly into the ideological boxes and labels with which we have become so comfortable and no beliefs however strongly held clearly lead to the expected behaviors. We find ourselves uneasily empathetic for characters we thought we would despise as these textured characters hold together contradictory lives each yearning in subtle ways for that which the other has. Butch may be hard and judgmental but he is also the responsible loving father who raised his sons when his wife Arlene ran off. Holly is a spiritual seeker tasting different traditions, engaging in a variety of practices, free and kind, and lonely. Brandon understands God of his traditionalist faith forgiving him for sleeping with men so long as he acts from weakness in the face of temptation but God would never forgive him if he were to choose a loving long-term homosexual relationship.
Next Fall invites us to think about the complex relationship between our beliefs and our actions and the absence of any inevitable connection between what we profess to believe with all our heart and how we act. There is a too muchness to our psyche that cannot be cleanly packaged. Our beliefs and actions live in far more mysterious tension than we admit. Yes, for some small percentage of people ideology and behavior cohere precisely but these people are exceptions and they are dangerous. But for most of us inconsistency, incoherence, and unexpected combinations in how we construct our life are actually the norm. Hypocrisy is part of the messiness of life and our task is to embrace this "sacred" messiness, to the love the stranger, to love that which is strange within us. We - religious and secular, atheist and theist, liberal and conservative, traditional and modern, fundamentalist and pluralist - know like the characters of this play that the rug can be pulled out from under us at anytime and so we hold our lives together in a myriad of incommensurate ways and perplexing permutations. Skepticism can be as revelatory as faith and faith as eye opening as skepticism. We are mixers and blenders, benders and switchers whether we admit it or not. Next Fall, a restorative and healing meditation on love and faith, reminds us all in the most humorous and honest way that certainty is the enemy of compassion.
Coincidentally, I saw Next Fall the day after I participated in the National September 11 Memorial & Museum's Planning Conversation Series in NYC. The juxtaposition was instructive: in the dearness of the vanishing moment we are not our carefully constructed and inherited ideologies and theologies, creeds and dogmas, which we profess to get us through the night. We are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, lovers and friends holding on to each other, embracing each other, and sometimes even catching each other across great divides as we are swept up in the whirlwind of life. I honestly do not know if love vanquishes death as our traditional faiths teach but I do know that our vulnerabilities trump our ideologies and that love leavens the purity and logic of our beliefs propelling us to connect as the fiercely gracious human beings we are.