By Manning Harris

My grandmother used to say that the quickest way to lose friends is to engage in arguments about religion; and a very wise minister I knew enjoyed wryly pointing out that organized religion is the single biggest cause of insanity in the world.

If either of these statements makes you uncomfortable, you can see what a thorny task playwright Geoffrey Nauffts had in creating his play “Next Fall,” now playing at Actor’s Express through February 11.  Here we have two gay men:  Luke (Joe Sykes), a young struggling New York actor who’s a committed Christian; and his partner Adam (Mitchell Anderson), an older man with a bit of a Margo Channing complex (“I’m 40—4-0.” Remember?) who is also an atheist.  How can they be together?  Wouldn’t there be raging conflict from the get-go?

Well, they love each other.  Yes, there are arguments and quite heated discussions; but to their credit, they show us that such relationships are possible.  And as Artistic Director Freddie Ashley notes in the program, “in these polarized times, it is an empowering and valuable message.”

But the sanctity of the family is a religion all by itself, often an exclusionary one.  When Luke is in a serious automobile accident and in intensive care at Beth Israel Hospital, his family and hometown Florida friends begin to gather, and guess what—the family knows nothing about Adam or Luke’s sexual orientation.

Director Kate Warner has assembled a fine cast:  In addition to Mr. Anderson and Mr. Sykes, we now have Luke’s  divorced parents, Butch (William S. Murphey) and Arlene (Patricia French).  Butch  is fiercely fundamentalist, and Arlene is delightfully quirky and colorful.  Holly (Jennifer Levison) owns a candle store and is Adam’s good pal; Brandon (John Benzinger) is an old friend of Luke’s who seems ambiguous (at best) in his acceptance of not only Luke and Adam’s relationship, but of himself.  This is a fairly tepid character which doesn’t begin to tap Mr. Benzinger’s proven talents.

There are flashbacks, quite effective, such as Luke’s desperately trying to “de-gay” his and Adam’s apartment; also Luke’s praying before meals—and after sex—much to Adam’s chagrin.  There’s a moment reminiscent of the nightmare years of the AIDS crisis, when only “family” was allowed admittance into the patient’s room—and that did not include Adam.

I’m not crazy about the set, which seems to needlessly distance the audience from the characters, especially in the hospital scenes; I’m sure that could have been remedied somehow.  And at times the pace is just a tad slow.

But there’s a wonderful climatic moment between Adam and Butch (Luke’s father); and most impressive and moving of all is the love between Luke and Adam, which transcends their “faith-based” differences.  This love begins to spread its warmth among the disparate characters assembled.  “Next Fall” doesn’t exactly knock you out; it does, however, draw you in, and you’ll probably leave with some worthwhile questions.  Playwright Nauffts would be pleased.

For tickets and information, visit www.actors-express.com.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.