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Review: Winter can’t arrive too soon in RagTag’s soapy “Next Fall”

<p>Rik Wade (Butch), Nicholas Steven King (Luke) and Thom Chrastka (Adam). PHOTO: MICHAEL CLOSE</p>

Rik Wade (Butch), Nicholas Steven King (Luke) and Thom Chrastka (Adam). PHOTO: MICHAEL CLOSE

Here’s a rare spectacle: a play that treats people of faith respectfully and very seriously, namely Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall (RagTag Entertainment). It’s a gay-themed domestic drama that deals with relationship issues rather than waxing polemical. If Nauffts is concerned with any Big Issue, it’s our immortal souls. Next Fall is a metaphysical debate concealed within a “meet-cute” romance.

And they are cute, nerdy, middle-aged hypochondriac Adam (Thomas Chrastka) and boyish Luke (Nicholas Steven King), an aspiring actor in Manhattan. They’re enjoyable together — bantering endearingly or bickering comfortably. Two constant sources of friction are Adam’s atheism, symptomatic of his negative worldview, and Luke’s deep and abiding Christian beliefs. A third, recurrent vexation is that Luke is closeted and Adam resents constantly dissembling to Luke’s Southern-fried family. All these strains come together — well, kinda-sorta — when an accident puts Luke into a coma.

Why, then, is Next Fall an enormous yawn? Nauffts has straitjacketed it with a cumbersome flashback structure, constantly returning to rote Hospital Waiting Room scenes that read like rejected pages from The Young and the Restless. He’s also cluttered the action with a group of largely superfluous supporting characters, one of whose presence goes unexplained until late in the second act. The women, particularly, are so overburdened with quirks they seem to have missed the exit for Great American Trailer Park Musical. That’s partly because directors Tobie Romzek and J.R. Thomas have directed their actors to play stereotypes (New Age Ditz, Southern Eccentric, etc.) rather than characters. Their staging is so static the actors seem bolted to the floor. Romzek’s drab scenic concept forces constant, prolonged scene changes, repeatedly sapping momentum. Jake Copenhaver’s lighting is garish and off-putting.

Only King’s Luke generates emotional involvement. His open, down-to-earth presence and easygoing delivery are thoroughly ingratiating, and he makes Luke’s concern for Adam’s salvation as sincerely moving as Nauffts surely intended. Erin Elizabeth Matthews’ trippy line readings soften a tiresome character, and one must salute Tracy Blackwell for the wrongheaded verve with which she goes off the deep end as Luke’s mother. Rik Wade plays the glum father like a passerby who’s wandered into Next Fall by mistake. Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Tyson Croft (the inexplicable Brandon) is a stick. And Chrastka, he’s been typecast once too often. His Adam is uptight, fussy and volatile. But it’s a showy performance, effectively saying, “Look, Ma! I’m acting!”

Next Fall Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m., through July 28; Onyx Theatre, 953 E. Sahara Ave., Suite 16B, 333-6699; $15-$20.