One of the great things about religion is that it can make sex feel dirtier. But it can also fan the dual flames of shame and guilt, which tend to be a lot less fun. In Geoffrey Nauffts’s Next Fall, a committed couple wrestles with the strain that religious beliefs, or lack thereof, can put on a relationship. Adam (Patrick Breen) is a 40ish neurotic hypochondriac who skips through life in a kvetchingly blissful, perpetually godless state. Luke (Patrick Heusinger) is a strapping, well-mannered Southern boy who’s been raised right—or, rather, far right: A fervent Christian, he says grace before eating, and he prays after sex, too, partly as a way of atoning for acts that on some level he considers sinful. In a flashback detailing one of their early assignations, Adam quizzes Luke on the logic of this sin first, pray later yo-yo diet: “Then how come you continue to sin? I mean, and don’t get me wrong, that was some amazing sinning we just did, I look forward to more, but you sinned a lot.” He waits, one delicious beat: “You sinned more than I did.”
Belief doesn’t answer to logic, of course, and that’s one of the core ideas behind Next Fall. What’s remarkable about Nauffts’s play—which first surfaced Off Broadway last year—is the way it mines that conflict for laughs without selling it short. Next Fall is only half a comedy: It opens with a hint of tragedy that foreshadows rougher waters ahead, particularly because Luke’s Bible-toting parents (played by Connie Ray and Cotter Smith) don’t know about their son’s sexual orientation. In other words, they don’t know that Adam is part of their family. But the material, directed deftly by Sheryl Kaller, refuses to treat any of its characters as cartoons, and even the most painful situations allow room for a laugh or two. When Adam serves Luke’s father a cup of tea in an owl-shaped porcelain cup, dad gruffly proclaims the cup “dainty,” a clue he knows something about his son that he really doesn’t want to. Then again, what is religion but knowing without knowing?
Next Fall comes on a little too strong only in the second half, when it begins to belabor some of its points: The conflicts caused by Adam’s refusal to adopt Luke’s earnest, unshakable beliefs begin to feel falsely exaggerated. But the show’s breezy, convivial tone, even in the face of some big life-or-death questions, wins the day. Adam and Luke may not be legally married, but then, living in sin can be its own state of grace.