Next Fall

Next Fall is a must-see this spring. Direct from a thrice-extended off-Broadway run, this Naked Angels Theatre Company new, original play is now playing on Broadway at the Helen Hayes theatre and it gets my whole-hearted recommendation.
At the center of Next Fall is the struggle between faith and logic, and what those two (sometimes opposing) forces mean in terms of relationships. The non-linear story is told through a series of flashbacks interspersed between the present day, much like many of my favorite Aaron Sorkin series’ episodes. For my theatre-going experience, this parallel to Sorkin’s work is not insignificant, but more on that later. When the play begins, we are in a hospital waiting room, and meet five of the six characters - the sixth character, Luke, is the off-stage patient, whom we’ll meet in the first flashback. Gathered for Luke’s vigil are his mother, father (the two are divorced), a friend, a friend/co-worker and his boyfriend. The thing is, his parents, his father especially, are southern Christians, from Tallahassee, Luke himself is too, and they don’t know Luke is gay or, furthermore, that Adam is his boyfriend. (Just a fun side note: Luke’s younger brother, who is spoken of but never heard from, is a sophomore at Georgia Tech.)

Through the flashbacks, we see how Luke and Adam meet, how their relationship evolves, how Luke comes out to Adam - that is, how he tells Adam he is a Christian - and how Luke’s unwavering belief in Jesus and the bible and the notion of being saved worms its way through his and Adam’s relationship. Adam does not identify with a religion and is uncomfortable with the idea of blind faith, particularly when it flies in the face of logic.

I find this topic to be incredibly intriguing. It’s actually a topic I struggle with quite a bit and a topic that is explored in some of my favorite shows, including Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60. (I’m thinking, in particular, of the K&R Parts 1-3 episodes in which Harriet, the Christian, debated her faith with her on-off beau Matt and tried to teach Danny how to pray.) How do we reconcile the comfort that faith can provide with the reality of logic and science and reason?

The most powerful discussion of this cognitive dissonance comes when Adam asks Luke how he can be gay and be a Christian. Luke says it’s okay that he sins - yes, he tells his new boyfriend that what they have been doing all night long, as much as he enjoyed it, was a sin because the bible says it is - because he has accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and that because he truly believes, when the rapture comes he will be saved and go to heaven. Adam is incredulous at this statement and challenges Luke’s theory. Granting that a sin is a sin is a sin, Adam asks Luke to consider Matthew Shepard. (For those unfamiliar with Shepard’s story: Shepard was a young gay man living in Laramie, Wyoming who was brutally beaten and left for dead (and eventually died) by two homophobes. His parents and story are often invoked when advocating for hate crime legislation.) Trying to understand how absolute this believe-and-be-saved thing is, Adam asks Luke if Shepard’s killers - murderers - would go to heaven because they were Christians, and even though they sinned, they had accepted Jesus and would therefore be saved, while Matthew Shepard, a good, upstanding citizen who happened to be gay and was therefore brutally beaten and murdered, would go to hell unless, in the last moments of his life, he’d accepted Jesus and become a believer. Simply, Adam asks if the victim would go to hell because he’s not a believer while convicted murderers would go to heaven because they “believed”. Luke’s answer: Yes.

This is always where you lose me. Like Adam, I have trouble believing in anything that says someone who purposefully killed another human being could be absolved of his sins by saying a few Hail Marys while someone else who’s never even hurt a fly would be sentenced to eternal damnation because the men who wrote the bible so many years ago didn’t like the idea of a man sleeping with a man. I suppose you could say that that’s something for the theologians to figure out, except that religion and religious beliefs permeate our society and, though it’s unconstitutional, our laws.

While watching Next Fall, I was reminded of the debate I’ve waged in my mind before, often after watching Bill Maher or certain Aaron Sorkin episodes: Faith and religion can offer comfort to so many people. While I don’t find such comfort within the traditional confines of organized religion, I consider myself a spiritual person and am comforted by the thought that there is a greater force out there in the universe and that some things are beyond our control. Furthermore, I was thinking about what does comfort me: Art. Whether it’s music, theatre, a TV show, a movie or a great book, I can often turn to art to change or enhance my mood. When I’m feeling angry, I put on Rage Against the Machine and rage against the machine. When I’m upset over something, I put on my sad song mix and listen to these chilling and emotional songs that help me work through whatever’s going on in my mind; when I’m elated, I’ll turn on “Walking on Sunshine” and do my dance of joy. Or sometimes if I need a little booster, a little reminder to wonder about things and believe in myself, I turn on The Muppet Movie and let Kermit and the gang help me find the rainbow connection.

So art gives me comfort - how is that so different from religion comforting someone else, and what’s the danger in it? Well, the difference seems to be that religion isn’t just for comforting but rather used as a literal guide to live your life and that guide (a) is full of intolerance and hypocrisy and archaic advice that reflected the best wisdom of the time and the far-from-omniscient men who wrote it, and (b) keeps you from acting logically and sensibly in today’s world.

This latter point reminds me of, surprise, surprise, a West Wing episode. In “Take This Sabbath Day,” President Bartlett has the Sabbath to decide whether or not to pardon a man on death row. The ruling from the convict’s appeal comes down on Friday night and because the government doesn’t execute people on the Sabbath, Bartlett and his team have until 11:59pm Sunday to make a decision. The president receives advice from Toby, his communications director and a Jew who, in this episode, is guided by his rabbi; Joey Lucas, a Quaker pollster brought in for a meeting with Josh; and the Pope. Bartlett, a Catholic, struggles with and prays on this throughout the Sabbath and when he finally meets with his priest, he asks why God didn’t provide any guidance. The priest tells a story: There’s a guy who lives in a town and he hears a radio announcement saying there’s a storm and floods coming and everyone should make emergency preparations. The guys says, “I’m religious, God loves me, I’ll be taken care of.” So he doesn’t do anything. As the storm approaches, a neighbor comes by and offers shelter. The man says, “I’m religious, God loves me, I’ll be taken care of.” So the neighbor goes on his way. The storm comes and the guy is flooded out of his home. He’s flailing around in the newly made sea when a helicopter comes by and someone throws him a rope, offering an escape. The guys says, “No, I’m religious, God loves me, I’ll be taken care of.” Well, the guy dies. When he gets to heaven he has an audience with God and says, “I don’t get it. I was religious. I thought you loved me. Why didn’t you take care of me?” And God says to him, “I sent you a radio announcement, a neighbor and an emergency helicopter - what are you doing here?” The priest then says to President Bartlett, who is upset God gave him no guidance about what to do about the death sentence, “God sent you a rabbi, a quaker and a priest - what were you waiting for?”

The point the priest is making is that this blind faith - to the extent that you eschew practical and tangible help - is destructive. I agree and I would add that faith alone is not enough. Faith needs to be balanced out with a healthy dose of reality and science and logic. You can have faith and still accept help from non-religious sources.

I’ve wandered off the path a little here, so let’s get back to Next Fall. There is not a weak member among the cast and the sets smoothly run in and out of the wings, easily defining spaces and times. I thought Cotter Smith was particularly powerful as Luke’s father. His quiet and purposeful cadence were perfect for the strong, prototypical Christian male, or at least how I think of him. Everyone really did a wonderful job at creating full, compelling characters, never caricatures.

The ideas and themes I discussed earlier are explored in this gem of a new play. At intermission I wondered, being able to liken the themes of the play to so many other pieces of art within the zeitgeist, if Next Fall was breaking any new ground. I’m not sure that it is, but I don’t think that’s what matters. What matters is that these themes are being explored. This is a timely play and the discussions this could raise are well-worth having. As a society, we are in a constant struggle between being led by what the bible says and what the Constitution says, and how and if those two guiding man-made documents can coexist. Moreover, the fact that these themes are being explored in a Broadway play means that a more mainstream audience, as compared to the niche market who, for example, saw the indie film Latter Days, which looked at the same struggle, is being exposed to this kind of thought and being challenged to seriously reflect on what it means to believe.

Visit Next Fall on Broadway for more information about the show or to order tickets.