It’s easy to mistake Geoffrey Naufft’s “Next Fall” for being slighter than it is. Much of this artful, thoughtful and very moving story of a gay couple agonizing over differences in their religious faiths proceeds with the stinging breeziness of a cosmopolitan comedy. You can imagine its concept being pitched to a television producer as a sort of “Will & Grace” with an ontological conscience: He’s a committed Christian, while he’s a committed atheist, and it’s driving their crazy friends even crazier!
But the appealingly acted Naked Angels production that opened Wednesday night at Playwrights Horizons, directed by Sheryl Kaller, is an intellectual stealth bomb. Even as you’re being entertained by the witty talk of ingratiatingly imperfect people, feeling as comfortable as if you were watching your favorite long-running sitcom, big and uneasy questions — really big ones, without answers — are forming in the back of your mind. Don’t expect them to go away when the play is over.
The characters in “Next Fall” — including Adam (Patrick Breen) and Luke (Patrick Heusinger), the odd couple at the play’s center — carry plenty of weight, all right, but it’s the kind generated from inside. Well, mostly. Mr. Nauffts uses the time-honored device of a potentially fatal accident to drag a group of disparate people into confrontations they have been putting off for years.
But Mr. Nauffts leaves these folks the freedom to deal with their shared crisis with all the awkwardness, evasion and denial that allow people to live with themselves, even if such things poison them inside. Life is big, people are small. And Mr. Nauffts takes no shortcuts in working out the intersection of these two données.
The play alternates between scenes set in the waiting room of a New York City hospital, where Luke is in a coma after being hit by a taxi, and vignettes that trace in flashbacks the evolving and sometimes tenuous relationship of Luke, a young actor, and the 40-ish Adam. They meet cute at a dinner party where Luke, working as a waiter, administers the Heimlich maneuver to a choking Adam and move on to a one-night stand that develops into what looks like a permanent thing.
Their big problem isn’t the age difference or the good-looks gap. (Luke is a hottie; Adam, a bit of a nebbish, with more than a touch of the hypochondriacal, fatalistic Woody Allen of “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.”) It’s that Luke, a hard-core Christian from Florida, believes that the man he loves is going to hell. Not for having sex with men, mind you (that’s just sinning and can be forgiven on Judgment Day), but for not believing in Jesus. Questioned by Adam, Luke admits uncomfortably that the killers of Matthew Shepard — the victim of a much-publicized hate crime in 1998 — would go to heaven were they to accept Jesus, while Mr. Shepard would not, unless he too had chosen to believe.
Religions, with their creeds and rules for behavior, may make life simpler, as Luke insists to Adam. But people are messy, and no one believes in the same way.
Looks like an interesting play.