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The opening scene of Performance Network’s Next Fall, by Geoffrey Naufft, feels like eavesdropping on strangers in crisis. With molecules of exposition buried in swiftly unfolding context, the viewer may feel both unease and relief at being removed from what sounds like the aftermath of a terrible accident. However, under the direction of Ray Schultz, the show quickly dispels both these sensations, and the multifaceted, ethically sticky conflict becomes all-encompassing — however much the audience is challenged to ponder and empathize with this unwinnable scenario, they are made to feel it just as gravely.

Key to the emotional grounding of the production is the charming, enduring romance between unlikely partners Adam (Andrew Huff) and Luke (Kevin Young). At opposite ends of an ideological divide, Luke takes comfort in his devout Christianity, whereas Adam pokes holes in the flawed logic of the Rapture and has no patience for a God who punishes people — especially for the supposed sin of being homosexual. Together, Huff and Young navigate the complexities of their partnership with overwhelming respect and affection, easily showing the viewer a couple that strives to manage its differences and reaps the rewards. Agreeing to disagree about their stance on the afterlife, their one sticking point is a more practical one: Luke is unable to come out to his parents and younger brother, and circumstances drive Adam to be complicit in the omission. But even as they struggle against forces that could pull them apart, these touching core performances always make the relationship feel like one to fight for.

Unfortunately for the characters, there is plenty of fight over the course of the play — Adam and Luke’s scenes exist solely in the past, as in the present, Luke is comatose in the aftermath of a collision with a taxi. The tragedy brings other players into the equation, like Luke’s equally pious friend Brandon (Rob Pantano) and Adam’s old friend and employer Holly (Courtney Myers), but the most confounding are Luke’s parents. The presence of staunchly conservative Butch (John Seibert) and overcompensating recovering addict Arlene (Barbara Coven), summoned to Manhattan from their native Florida, viciously nullifies Adam’s spouse-like role; his already-heartbreaking inner conflict between acknowledging his place at Luke’s side and betraying his partner is compounded by the introduction of family-only policies and patient care decisions that are unendurable regardless, but here bear additional injustice.

Incredibly, Nauffts pivots from the Adam/Luke story to layer on a number of subplots that belie the play’s two-hour running time. As the boho-trendy Holly, Myers gives flawless support to the unraveling Adam, prevailing with a cooler head and reasoning with him without condescending or discrediting his grief. Pantano’s tight-lipped discomfort is given dimension in a second-act scene postulating that however universal faith appears in the long view, religious and moral credos are infinitely flexible and unique in practice. Coven’s Arlene brings a chatty Steel Magnolias familiarity that effectively masks her feelings of inadequacy as a parent and terror of failing her son yet again. As the closer but sterner parent, Seibert gives Butch a fearsome distance that brilliantly keeps the viewer wondering how much of his behavior stems from Luke’s mollifying deception, and how much from his own refusal to acknowledge what he cannot fail to see. Yet the focus of the play rightly circles back to the central couple, and in particular to Huff, whose ping-ponging between exceptional connection with Young and suffocated devastation in its absence is something to behold.

Tasked with portraying numerous locations in addition to the hospital, designer Monika Essen fills her angular, antiseptic set with IKEA-flexible design set off by a tactile array of properties that become integral to Schultz’s deliberate staging. In concert with Janine Woods Thoma’s lighting and Ken Faulk’s incidental sounds, and with assistance from gorgeously saturated projected images, the multipurpose space blossoms into the impersonal disgust of emergency-room anxiety, the softness of a beautiful afternoon in the park, and the coziness of a real home. The production elements readily assist the performers in cycling through locations and timelines, making effortlessly comprehensible transitions that keep the focus on each moment as it unfolds.

Bravely confrontational and affectingly appealing, this Next Fall poses impossible questions and makes arguments about relationships between people with opposing creeds, the sliding scale of reconciling beliefs and behavior, and when or whether there's a right time to make a difficult stand. Ultimately, the show succeeds because of the deep emotional core of its central bond: here, denying a union this compassionate and robust feels nothing short of criminal, which effectively dares the viewer to extrapolate whether any circumstance warrants such painful denunciation.


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