Some performances stick with you; some productions stick with you for all of the wrong reasons. Hovey Players present the intelligent play Next Fall without much of the intelligence. Playing to the LCD (“Lowest Common Denominator”), the cast bypass a lot of the cleverness and heart of the play to perform the hilarious comedy underlying the piece. While extremely entertaining, this production is not Geoffrey Naufft’s play. Instead, the cast create a farcical take on the poignant tale that won my heart at the SpeakEasy two years ago.
It took me a lot of thought to figure out how to dissect my discomfort and annoyance with this show. To be fair, it is a wonderful production for those who do not know the show. It provides plentiful laughs, some touching performances, and a rich blend of characters. But it’s not Next Fall, at least, not how I saw it in NYC or at SpeakEasy. I try to avoid comparing companies and productions; it’s not fair to hold the DASH award-winning community theatre Hovey Players to the same standards as the IRNE award-winning regional theatre SpeakEasy Stage Company. However, I think it’s a disservice to audience members to warp a play as completely as I felt that they did to Nauffts’ Next Fall. With that lens in mind, and with some perspective on the work, I attempt to write this review.
The play centers around the relationship between older hypochondriac Adam (played with heart by Kendall Hodder) and the younger actor Luke (played by Kevin Hanley). Their dynamic is the focal point of the play, and a lot rides on its success. My issue is how this production chose to create each of these characters and establish the chemistry between these men. Much of my complaints lie with Hanley’s performance. As a musical theatre actor, he brings camp with a few riffs to spare to this role. Luke, however, while gay, is first and foremost a Christian. Not to say that Christians cannot be campy (ugh, I’m going to have trouble being PC in this review, I know), but Hanley goes over-the-top with his embellishments to Luke’s natural humor and grace. Instead of squarely landing on Nauffts’ comedy, Hanley prances and stomps around on each joke, seemingly throwing the humor in our faces, a la Will and Grace’s Jack MacFarlane. Such broad characterization has its place and purpose, and I’m not sure that it was in Next Fall. In fact, I felt mildly insulted to see it in such a touching play. While I appreciated this production’s use of humor to lighten the darkness of this play’s themes and moments, I felt that it overpowered the touching portrayal of faith and commitment in this play. Hanley is sassy, sarcastic, bitter, and borderline hysterical in parts, presenting a broad character rather than a moment-by-moment truthfulness of a man with a struggle to reconcile his inner convictions about faith and sexuality. The audience, however, loved it, eating up and perhaps feeding into Hanley’s exuberant flamboyancy. Perhaps I’m being unfair to the untrained actor, or perhaps it was just horrendously offensive casting and coaching by director Russell Greene. Either way, it took a lot of effort to ignore it, and to reconcile why audiences seemed to adore it.
Of course, unfortunately, Hanley’s performance seemed to dilute and even mitigate any good moments and choices by Hodder’s Adam. Their scenes fell flat for me, as they both seemed one neurotic outburst away from a Neil Simon comedy. However, Hodder had some excellent interactions and moments with Betsy Cohen’s Arlene, Luke’s mother. Cohen has a musical quality to her voice, whose drawl provides the perfect comfort, especially in her more tender moments. She has an easy rapport with Karl Schmith’s Butch, her husband and Luke’s father. While I felt like Schmith was too hard to read and did not offer nearly enough complexity to the conservative pastor-father, he established a passable character for which the play required. I am still conflicted on Matthew Carr’s choices; as the character with some of the least back-story or lines, Carr’s Matthew is an enigma in this play, and Carr barely manages to create a holistic character out of the little with which he has to work. He struggles to create a character who is impossibly subdued into a conservative religious faith while balanced with homosexuality tendencies. This dichotomy should provide rich moments of tension but instead seem without conflict or purpose in Carr’s portrayal. His character almost seems to be a mere plot device instead of a fully-realized character with wants and needs. Indeed, much of the story seems to blip by, surviving on the joke-to-joke transition instead of on a beat-to-beat moment with wants, needs, and conflict.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Jacey L. Bokuniewicz steals the show with her Holly. Bokuniewicz’s Holly is smart, sassy, fun, and purposeful in her interactions with the cast. One of her biggest strengths is creating dynamic and real relationships with each member of the cast, which helps both clarify her character and provide more context for the other characters. I rarely see actors who manage to create subtle nuances in their interactions with each member of a cast, establishing that their characters have unique stories and history with each other character in the show. I don’t think I could pick a favourite moment of her performance, but she shines especially bright with Hodder’s Adam.
Boo on Anna Silva for her ridiculous costuming for Bokuniewicz, particularly whatever slinky thing Silva gave Bouniewicz in one scene. Overall, the costuming was just not flattering or memorable for any of the cast. I was surprised that Al Forgione’s set design worked, though, it compromised some scenes by having Adam and Luke’s apartment double as the hospital waiting room, which also became Luke’s hospital room. Director Greene makes the interesting choice to highlight Adam’s memories as the play travels between the present-day hospital to five years in the past in Adam and Luke’s apartment. This clever decision makes scene changes seamless and highlights Adam’s tormented psyche as moments in the present-day remind him of his happier past with Luke. However, such choice has its limitations and disadvantages. For example, Greene decides to eliminate props in the past (an appropriate choice if he wants the seamless transition and the lucid nature of memory). However, this decision requires his cast to “pretend” to eat, drink, and store items without the physicality of them. His cast does not do this with any semblance of ability or skill. Perhaps I’m extra critical having just performed in Our Town, but, frequently, props vanish mid-way through scenes, imaginary plates are unknowingly kicked off tables, and juice is poured with no acknowledgement of gravity or depth. Such blatant lack of precision draws audience members away from the scene as they recognize the actors’ lack of practice and coaching in creating this imaginary world.
The doubling of locations also creates odd blocking and set choices. For example, one of the first flashback moments is supposed to take place on the roof of Holly’s apartment, where Adam has escaped to get some air, and, there, he meets Luke for the first time. However, this production had a couch stuck from the prior scene in the hospital waiting room for which Greene decided to utilize. I don’t know anyone with a couch on her NYC apartment roof. Additionally, because a couch doubled for both apartment and waiting room scenes, the actors frequently used the furniture with the same familiarity. Someone does not use their living room couch the same way as he would use a couch in a waiting room; it was annoying to watch these actors do so.
Overall, I felt the play lacked precision, execution , and awareness. Unfortunately, a lot of these needs lie within the director’s scope. Perhaps I am too critical because I came to the show with some experience with the play and its text. Perhaps I came with too many expectations for what the show means to me. Again, seeing an audience encourage the broad farcical humor and ignore any stylistic faults in their creations gave me pause. As a reviewer, I have to acknowledge that I do not know what makes good theatre. Should I be encouraging theatre that entertains, or should I applaud the theatre that educates? To whom should I be writing these reviews? The LCD? The educated theatre patron? The theatre company? Myself? As I struggled to write this review, I had to refine a lot of my thoughts about what makes a good review and, moreover, what makes good theatre worthy of a good review. Overall, I’m just one voice among the many people that see Boston theatre, however, I like to think that my continued attendance and persistent questioning of good theatre makes me qualified to review such theatre with a critical eye and ear for people to consider. Like my dismissal of Hovey Players’ Next Fall, it’s all in your perception.