Scheie shines in SJ Rep’s poignant Next Fall

Oct 26

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Danny Scheie (left) is Adam and Adam Shonkwiler is Luke in San Jose Repertory Theatre’s production of Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts. Below: James Carpenter (left front) is Butch, Scheie (right, kneeling) is Adam, Lindsey Gates (left rear) is Holly and Rachel Harker is Arlene in a tense momentin a hospital waiting room. Photo by Kevin BernePhotos by Kevin Berne

As an actor and director, there is seemingly nothing Danny Scheie cannot do. Over the summer, he dazzled in several drag roles in California Shakespeare Theater’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (read my review here), and now he’s doing a serious about face in the drama Next Fall with San Jose Repertory Theatre.

Geoffrey Nauffts’ play is formulaic to a degree, but it’s a sturdy formula, and Scheie – not to mention the rest of the excellent cast – bring out the best in this play about faith, love and family.

In the aftermath of a traffic accident, friends and family gather in a New York hospital waiting room, and playwright Nauffts flashes back over the last five years to bring us up to speed on who all these people are to each other and to the man in a coma and why there’s so much tension between some of them.

The central couple is Adam (Scheie) and Luke (Adam Shonkwiler). They met at a party on a rooftop where Adam was having a meltdown. A once-aspiring writer, he has spent the last six years selling candles in his friend Holly’s shop, and he realizes he has to make a change in his life. He insists he’s 40, but in deference to his mini-breakdown, he has likely shaved off a decade or so. The caretaker in this mid-life moment is 20something Luke, an adorable cater-watier/actor, who falls for Adam the moment he jokes that his “soul is fat.”

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It was the mention of “soul” that likely piqued Luke’s attention. As a practicing Christian and guilt-plagued gay man, Luke has the surety of faith and the darkness of a sinner. He fully believes that when the Rapture comes, he and the other believers will ascend to heaven, while fully 2/3 of the world’s population, including Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists like Adam, will have seven years to contemplate their fate and make better spiritual choices before being condemned to hell. While this sounds looney-tunes to Adam, for Luke it’s a spiritual and emotional truth, and there’s going to be no convincing either man otherwise.

Therein lies the spiritual conflict at the heart of Next Fall, and Nauffts is never preachy, though he is often funny (perhaps even funnier with Scheie bringing every ounce of his comic genius to Adam’s love of/frustration with Luke).

Another complication is that Luke is not out to his divorced parents, Butch (the masterful James Carpenter) and Arlene (Rachel Harker as sort of a modern spin on Blanche DuBois). There’s a great flashback scene when Butch pays a surprise visit to New York. Luke has tried to hurriedly de-gay the apartment, but Butch, though he uses the Bible as a crutch (according to his ex-wife), is also a smart man. When he finds himself alone drinking tea with Adam, he calls the cups “dainty” and the jig is up, but it isn’t. Butch doesn’t say anything, and by the time he and Adam see one another again, Butch can’t even remember where they met. Lots of denial happening there.

Also in that hospital waiting room are friends Holly (Lindsey Gates), a spiritual seeker who meditates, does yoga and still can’t quite find anything to replace the comfort of her Catholic upbringing, and Brandon (Ryan Tasker), a successful businessman and fundamentalist Christian friend of Luke’s who disapproves of Luke and Adam’s relationship because, though sex is sometimes necessary, love between men is not, nor is it acceptable.

Scheie and Shonkwiler make a fascinating couple with a believable bond between them in spite of all the complications. Scheie is the emotional heart of the play, and the ease with which he inhabits Adam’s quirks, manias and passions is extraordinary.

As the nearly 2 1/2-hour play winds down, Scheie and Carpenter really pull out the emotional stops (without overdoing it) and make Next Fall the moving experience it aims to be, even though Nauffts nearly topples his ending by co-opting Thornton Wilder’s Our Town to underscore the brevity of life and the mostly unconscious way we live it.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall continues through Nov. 10 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $29-$74 (subject to change). Call 408-367-7255 or visit www.sjrep.org.

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