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STAGE REVIEW

Exploring the boundaries of faith in ‘Next Fall’

Dan Roach (left) as Luke and Will McGarrahan as Adam in the thought-provoking SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Next Fall.’’ Dan Roach (left) as Luke and Will McGarrahan as Adam in the thought-provoking SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Next Fall.’’ (Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / September 20, 2011

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During a visit to his son Luke, who is desperate to conceal from him the fact that he is gay, a fundamentalist businessman in “Next Fall’’ named Butch resorts to hoary cliche to explain why he traveled from Florida to New York for an auction of Hardy Boys books. “Life’s short and then you die,’’ says Butch.

Adam, who is Luke’s lover and a nonbeliever, instantly delivers a smart-aleck rejoinder: “And then what happens?’’

It’s one of many funny moments in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s outstanding production of “Next Fall.’’ But as with much of the dialogue in Geoffrey Nauffts’s humane and emotionally resonant play, it’s also more than a wisecrack. In fact, it forms one of the play’s central questions - one to which perhaps even the skeptical Adam wouldn’t mind an answer.

Nauffts, an Arlington native who has worked as a stage actor and as a writer on ABC’s “Brothers and Sisters,’’ earned a 2010 Tony nomination in the best play category for “Next Fall.’’ I’ve seldom seen the limits and possibilities of faith explored with more skill and less didacticism.

A commensurate skill is displayed by director Scott Edmiston, who guides “Next Fall’’ through its shifting moods with insight and exceptional sensitivity. While Will McGarrahan anchors the production with a beautifully nuanced performance as Adam, there’s not a single weak link in the SpeakEasy cast of six, and barely a wrong note in the play.

The key is that the confrontations in “Next Fall’’ are grounded in character. Whether the arguments revolve around large spiritual questions or the everyday personal kind, they have the flavor of genuine conversation rather than sounding like alternating sets of talking points. It feels as if we’re looking in on real lives as they unfold, in all their complexity, uncertainty, and contradiction, and real relationships as they grow, fray, change, and try to endure.

“Next Fall’’ shifts back and forth in time between a galvanizing present-day crisis - Luke (Dan Roach) is in a coma after being hit by a taxicab - and the five years that preceded the accident.

Gathered in the waiting room of a Manhattan hospital are Luke’s long-divorced parents: macho, blustering Butch (Robert Walsh) and gabby, freewheeling Arlene (Amelia Broome). They are joined by Holly (Deb Martin), the owner of a candle shop where Adam and Luke both worked; Brandon (Kevin Kaine), a taciturn friend of Luke’s; and Adam.

Then the action flashes back to the initial meeting between Adam and Luke. At 40, Adam is a hunched, squirming portrait of midlife crisis, none too happy to be selling candles for a living. Luke, by contrast, is open-faced and open-hearted, with a blue-skies personality. An aspiring actor employed as a waiter for a catering company, he is much younger than Adam. But the age difference pales next to the religious one.

Shortly after they meet, Adam is startled to see Luke close his eyes and pray before a meal. It soon becomes clear that Luke is a fundamentalist Christian. Adam immediately begins to challenge him, asking him how he reconciles his homosexuality with the fundamentalist belief that it is a sin.

This seeming contradiction becomes a persistent source of conflict between the two men, even as their love grows stronger over the years. (It doesn’t help that Luke often prays after he and Adam have sex, as if he had something to atone for, and insists on hiding their relationship from his parents.) But Nauffts does not allow the argument to become one-sided, and Roach’s multidimensional portrayal of Luke communicates the depth of meaning, and even joy, he derives from his faith, contradictions and all.

As Butch and Arlene, Walsh and Broome capture not just the outsize personalities of a pair of flawed parents but also their wounded humanity as they confront the gravity of their son’s situation. As Holly, Martin projects the sardonic, knowing aura of an Eve Arden character in a 1940s movie, while Kaine gives Brandon an intriguingly enigmatic, unreadable exterior.

During the scenes in the hospital waiting room, Edmiston sustains a mood of suspense, partly stemming from Luke’s medical condition, and partly from the audience’s sense that it’s only a matter of time before the tensions between Adam and Butch lead to an explosion.

But it’s Adam’s realization that consolation can be found in different kinds of belief that lingers as the most memorable moment of many in this deeply moving play.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

NEXT FALL

Play by Geoffrey Nauffts

Directed by: Scott Edmiston

Sets, Janie E. Howland. Lights, Karen Perlow. Costumes, Carlos Aguilar. Sound and original music, Dewey Dellay.

At: SpeakEasy Stage Company, Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts. Through Oct. 15. Tickets $50-$55, 617-933-8600, www.speakeasystage.com