Garyy Geiken and Neal Skoy in "Next Fall" at the Jungle
There's a point at which critics find themselves having a different experience of theater than audience members, and I think those moments are worth examining. It happened for me with "Next Fall," currently playing at the Jungle, a play about a gay couple and a tragic accident. I didn't dislike the play, but neither did I particularly respond to it. So let me take a moment to investigate why I might have liked it less than other audience members, who responded with great approval. I'll start with some minor complaints, but I also think there is a fundamental flaw in the play, which I will get to at the end.
My smaller complaints with the play probably result from my working as a reader and respondent at a theater conference every year, which causes me to spend about two months reading scripts that are submitted. A big trend in current playwrighting is plays that are set in hospitals. I don't think this is an especially bad trend; in fact, I think it was inevitable. Americans are aging, and the health care profession is growing. Increasing amounts of time are being spent in hospitals, tending to sick or dying loved ones. We write the plays that reflect our experiences and concerns, and these sickbed moments are increasingly common. They're also inherently dramatic.
But I would bet I read 25 plays set in hospitals, in which the illness of a loved one brings up familial secrets, with the play alternating between a hospital bed and flashbacks from the life of the sick person. In fact, Theatre Latte Da just did a play that is exactly that, "Song of Extinction." It's what "Next Fall" does. And there gets to be a point where you start feeling like you're not seeing new plays, but endless variations on one play.
Worse still, the writing in "Next Fall" struck me, in places, as quite amateurish. This is a play that has received a lot of laurels, including Drama Desk and Tony Award nominations, but after having spent weeks picking over scripts that are just like it for the conference, I found the weaknesses in the writing glaring.
There's a theater workshop cliché — it's something that comes up in almost all writing workshops as a sort of reflex — and I'm not usually one to revert to it. It's a question of "why now?" Why did an action in a play happen at the moment it did? What motivated it? And, if it's important enough, why didn't it happen earlier?
This can be a useful question sometimes and irrelevant others, but I think it can't be avoided here. Because the central conflict in the play is between a gay agnostic and a gay Christian, who are dating, and the agnostic keeps throwing snits over the behavior of the Christian. But it's never behavior that is new. In one scene, he takes aside one of his lover's old friends to ask about the fact that the Christian prays after sex. And certainly one might wonder about such a thing. But the couple has been together for years at this point, and presumably this is not new behavior. So why now?
This is only truly irritating, I suppose, if you're somebody who has spent weeks and months in workshops. I can see audiences being sanguine, or even innocent, about it. But trust me, if you're in that former category, it's very irritating. And even if you aren't, I think it deflates the drama of the play. Arguments and emotional wounds are most exciting when they are fresh. If they are years old, and just pop up spontaneously, without clear cause, they're rather like prodding at an old bruise. There were points in this play where one partner complained about behavior in the other partner that was years old and I wanted to shout, "He's been like this for six years! Either learn to live with it or break up!"
Here's another complaint I have about the play, and it's a small one, but one that I have been thinking about a lot lately. This is a play without transitions. It has relatively short scenes, and it ends them on a pregnant comment. Then the lights go out, stage properties get moved in the dark, and the lights come back on for a new scene. This is a rather traditional way of doing things, but, then, in the old tradition, these moments happened between acts, when the audience was out in the lobby getting a cocktail or smoking a cigarette.
This sort of blackout structure doesn't work as well when the play is made of short scenes, as here, as it means the story must constantly be interrupted by set changes. And even if the play were to be done in a very spare way, without set changes, it's an unimaginative way to move from one scene to the next. I have been guilty of writing this way as well, and it's something I regret about my earlier plays. Transitions can also be part of the art of storytelling, and it's a pity to ignore their dramatic possibility in favor of simply flipping the lights off.
So it is — this is how one audience member can have a very different experience of a play than others, because they get caught up in a literary complaint and get stuck on one aspect of the mechanics of storytelling. I had other complaints, and they are all like this: issues with the play as a literary construct, issues with the way it is presented as a live performance, issues with how well the play was researched, and how that research was presented. In some ways, this is how being part of the world of theater for too long can ruin a lot of theater for you.
Nonetheless, I suspect I appreciated a lot of what the audience enjoyed as well, particularly in this play's performances, which featured heartfelt, unshowy characterizations, especially from Garry Geiken and Stephen Yoakam. The play honestly and earnestly attempts to address how complicated a relationship can be when the two partners have incompatible worldviews. The play never makes light of grief, and eloquently examines the way this emotion can simultaneously produce a sort of forced formality and a growing outrage. And while I felt the play's jokes weren't showstoppers, there are a lot of little comic moments, and so at least the playwright wasn't writing a play with the express purpose of bumming us out — it's surprising how many plays set around hospital beds are entirely devoid of humor.
There will be a lot of people for whom this play is profound, and I do not wish to diminish their experience in any way. I suspect that, had this not been the 25th script I have read that are all pretty much the same, I might have responded a lot better. At the same time, my criticisms aren't just the grousings of somebody who has been exposed to too much theater. I really feel these things diminish the impact of the play, or I wouldn't mention them. And there is one that, as I mentioned, I feel is genuinely to the detriment of the story being told. It necessarily diminishes it, and that's going to be the case whether this is your first hospital bed play or your 26th.
That issue is this: The play's entire drama is rooted in the fact that the two main characters are in a very long relationship. But, for the life of me, I don't know why they didn't break up. They have nothing in common, besides both being gay. They don't have common goals. They don't share interests. They don't even have the same sense of humor.
We don't see a relationship that has enduring qualities — instead, we see two people complaining to each other about things that have bothered them for years.
I could have ignored all my complaints about structure and form if I believed the relationship. People do remain in bad relationships, or relationships with constant irritations, when there is something causing them to stick to the relationship anyway. I don't know what that was in this play. And, when you have one character who is earnestly distressed that his partner is not a Christian, and another who is earnestly distressed that his partner is a Christian — well, that's the sort of thing that's going to bust up really fast without something extraordinary holding it together. Playwright Geoffrey Nauffts doesn't give us that.