Strong cast rarely falters in ‘Next Fall,’ a tragicomedy at Round House Theatre

February 7, 2012

The emotional stakes are high in Geoffrey Nauffts’s “Next Fall,” an affecting tragicomedy about love, faith and death, at Bethesda’s Round House Theatre through Feb. 26. Thanks to a gifted cast and a sensitive director in Mark Ramont, the emotional rewards are high for audiences, as well.

This is not to say that the Tony-nominated play (it ran on Broadway in 2010) and Round House’s new production unfold flawlessly. Yet the figurative punch in the sternum that theater lovers long for happens at this show in spades.

“Next Fall” opens with all the characters save one gathering ina critical care unit of a New York hospital. Luke, a rising young stage actor, has had an accident and lies in a coma. In the waiting room we meet his friend Holly (Dawn Ursula), a new-age-type candle shop owner; his friend and perhaps onetime lover, the uptight Brandon (Alexander Strain); his voluble, up-from-trailer-trash mother, Arlene (Kathryn Kelley), long divorced from but still squabbling with Butch (Kevin Cutts), his Christian fundamentalist father. Dashing in from the airport is Adam (Tom Story), Luke’s lover of four years.

Nauffts tells the story of Adam and Luke’s relationship in flashbacks. We learn how Adam, a 40-year-old hypochondriac with self-confidence issues, met Luke (Chris Dinolfo), a 20-ish hunk of a “cater-waiter” and wannabe actor. Adam has had a choking incident at a party. He runs to the restaurant roof to breathe, having been Heim­liched by Luke, who follows him up there. They’re hooked.

Yet this is a match most certainly not made in Heaven. Luke may be gay, but he’s also deeply Christian. The first time Adam sees Luke silently pray before a meal, his sarcasm is unleashed.

With Luke’s life hanging in the balance, the idea of faith as comfort takes on meaning, even for Adam. Some of his clashes with Luke’s father feel a little set up, but in the flashbacks, when Luke and Adam go from affectionate horseplay to loggerheads, the chasm seems vast.

Round House’s acting ensemble hasn’t completely jelled but they’re close. Cutts, an actor new to these parts, is impressive as Luke’s dad, bringing true complexity to the role. His final scene will break your heart — although his back is to you.

As Adam, Story gives a shaded and moving performance, yet he’s also the play’s comic relief, firing off perfectly timed barbs.

Dinolfo’s Luke is open, likable and poignantly immature in the way he shrinks from coming out to his parents and keeps trying to turn Adam into a believer.

Ursula lends Holly an inner life that makes her more than the calm foil among the play’s combatants. Strain isn’t given enough to work with as Brandon, but he succeeds in making him highly intriguing. Kelley, a longtime Round House actress who has always exuded a slender grace and an effortless class, seems slightly miscast as Luke’s mom. She gets it, all right, but doesn’t seem wholly comfortable.

Setting the flashbacks apart from the here-and-now is Daniel Conway’s striking, if slightly chilly, wheels-within-wheels set. It’s always an issue, filling Round House’s oversize stage, and he has solved it pretty well.

The shifts in time and place are clearly denoted by lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner, and costume designer Frank Labovitz dresses the characters to fit their personalities — making it work particularly well with Adam in trendy/shlumpy clothes; Luke in the snug-fitting duds of a young, buff man; and Holly in peasant blouses and chunky jewelry.

Sound designer and composer Matthew M. Nielson bridges scenes with plaintive — occasionally treacly — piano melodies and snatches of noise from hospital hallways and Manhattan streets.

None of these elements would matter without the strong work of actors and a director taking Nauffts’s funny, painful journey.

Horwitz is a freelance writer.

Next Fall

by Geoffrey Nauffts. Directed by Mark Ramont. About 2 hours 20 minutes. At Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, through Feb. 26. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org .

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