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Next Fall is a Broadway rarity these days: a new American play, populated by a non-celebrity ensemble cast, written and directed by two Broadway newcomers (Geoffrey Nauffts and Sheryl Kaller, respectively, both of whom earned Tony nominations). Its transfer from off-Broadway (where it was produced by Naked Angels in the summer of 2009) to its current home at the Helen Hayes Theatre has been considered remarkable—though not quite as remarkable as its ability to cross over from a "niche" play about a gay couple facing both a medical and spiritual crisis and into the realm of engaging, mainstream drama. Leading man Patrick Breen has been with the production since its earliest readings at its native Naked Angels, riding the wave from table read to the Tony Awards. In his own words, the star describes the lingering effect Next Fall has had since its inception, both on audiences and on himself.
When Next Fall first came along, I had been living in Los Angeles for 10 years. I had gotten back to New York once or twice to do plays, and I remember thinking, “I want to do more theater.” But the timing was always off; it just wasn’t happening. Fortunately, [Next Fall] playwright Geoffrey Nauffts and I had done this play, previously titled The Gospel According to Adam, as readings with Naked Angels several times. And so, one day, he called.
“Come do this show,” he said. My initial reaction was, “ I can’t.”
“I’m auditioning for pilots!” I told him. (I still had this dream of landing a series that would run for three or four years and make me enough money to buy a house.)
“Just accept the damn job, and if you get a TV show, you can leave,” he said. So I finally gave in. How could I not?
Of course, no big TV show came along. And I’m glad it didn’t, because I love this play. It has ended up being one of the peak experiences of my life.
I should have known Next Fall would be special when we first began. The script was strong enough to pack early readings with so many talented actors you could hardly believe you were in the room with them—Julie White, Jay O. Sanders, Patch Darragh, Zachary Quinto, Maryann Plunkett. (I should add that my current castmates are sublime and irreplaceable.) There was always something moving about the play, but it was the uniqueness of it that drew people to the table. Its effectiveness sneaks up on you. During the first scene, you get the set-up. “Oh, okay, hospital.” During the second scene, you go, “Oh. These guys are gay. It’s a gay play.” Then, suddenly, by the third and fourth scenes, which includes a declaration of religious faith, it ceases to be about “gay.” In just four scenes, Next Fall becomes a show you think you know and transforms into a play about two people, gender and orientation insignificant, trying to navigate love—the one thing that nearly everyone can relate to.
By the time Next Fall debuted off-Broadway in 2009, you’d come down the stairs to leave the show at the end of the night and there’d be two grown men just outside the lobby, programs in their hands, holding each other and weeping. The next night it would be a heterosexual couple thanking you. Some nights there were parents and adult children. Sometimes it was younger people, grateful to us for representing their story on stage. The entire cast realized then we were part of something unusual and profound.
Of course, there’s always balance. There was a guy in the audience during the off-Broadway run in the front row, which was two feet away from the edge of the stage. At the end of Act One, my character says something disparaging about the Bible: “I could probably wipe my ass with it and wake up tomorrow with a clear conscience.” The man leaned forward and looked me in the face. “Disgusting,” he said. I was shaken. My co-star, Cotter Smith, then has an onstage retort: “Science isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe if you weren’t so busy wiping your ass with The Bible you’d know that.” The man leaned forward again. “That’s right!” he hissed. After the play, he told the house manager there should be a warning about how the show insults the Bible. It was a grounding reminder of how much emotion Next Fall can stir. Though can’t you just see the pre-show sign he wanted? “Warning: This production utilizes cigarettes and Bible disparagement!” We actually don’t use cigarettes.
Broadway has only been a magnification of the reactions we got off-Broadway. People are moved by this show. People see a reflection of themselves in it. We actors, as people, feel lucky.
When Next Fall first crossed my plate I thought it was another little off-Broadway play that a friend of mine had written, one that would have a very short life—three weeks at an off-Broadway theater.
It came to be more than that. Resonant. Timely. Heartbreaking even when it’s funny, which is frequently. And a part of the slow, ineluctable, two-steps-forward-one-step-back progress that brings gays and straights together and reminds everyone we’re all sharing this planet equally. This play is on Broadway, bringing two seemingly different audiences together, and can do it without waving a rainbow flag—not that there’s anything wrong with rainbow flags.
Next Fall has been a personal “life changer” for that reason alone. But it’s also given me the strength to be candid about myself—that I have had romantic relationships with both women and men my entire life. I was closeted about that for a long time, from fear and shame. Geoffrey’s play has allowed me to be more honest with myself, my family and friends. It’s allowed me to say, “I’m 49 years old. Who cares?” I’m a more open person now.
I guess I’m saying storytelling of the kind represented in Next Fall changes lives. And I don’t really mind if that sounds cheesy. Because in this case, it’s true.