"Next Fall" never comes for Adam and Luke.
The endearingly odd couple at the center of Geoffrey Naufft's Tony-nominated play are so madly in love they don't quite address their demons. Adam is a deeply neurotic atheist with a quip for every occasion and a fear of being 40. Luke is half his age, a devout Christian who prays for redemption every time he has sex. Locked in the blissful escapism of falling head over heels, they duck all the big issues for almost five years until tragedy rears its head.
While Naufft's script spins its wheels for too long in the hoary vein of the New York comedy of manners, overstuffing the narrative with glib "Will & Grace"-style banter, there's no denying that the play cuts to the bone when the laughter dies down.
Etched with nuance by a first-rate ensemble, these characters eventually shake off their stereotypical qualities and force us to explore the painful reality of how relationships come to define who we are. Sensitively staged by Kirsten Brandt, "Next Fall" truly pulls us in during its poignant second act when the characters must face the tall shadows of mortality. This regional premiere runs through Nov. 10 at San Jose Repertory Theatre.
Danny Scheie plays Adam with the spiky panache for which he has become beloved. A bitchy 40-year-old writer who has been out of the closet forever, he can't help trying to convert his new boy toy, the placid and sunny twentysomething Luke (Adam Shonkwiler), to his personal brand of witty cynicism. He's a hypochondriac who thrives on anxiety and he can't resist the chance to pick apart Luke's relentlessly optimistic demeanor, not to mention his love for country music, reality TV and the Bible.
The play wastes too much time with Adam trading barbs with his snarky gal pal Holly (a tart Lindsey Gates) and the awkward chitchat that strangers make in the existential limbo that is a hospital waiting room. Certainly there's not enough done to flesh out the motivations for Luke's passionate belief in religion. The script doesn't give Shonkwiler enough to work with and the actor doesn't fully inhabit Luke's need to believe or his desperation to stay in the closet. There's also not enough chemistry between Scheie and Shonkwiler for the love story to pierce as deeply as it should.
Indeed, it's not until later in the play, when Luke is discussed by those closest to him, that this character truly comes into focus. Rachel Harker is mesmerizing as his mother, Arlene, a reformed wild child, pulling for her boy and battling her rage with her ex at the same time. While Nauffts overuses flashbacks to tell its story, Arlene's tearful memory of a playground standoff with her young son may be the single most moving scene.
For his part, James Carpenter transforms Butch, Luke's racist, homophobic and sexist bully of a father, into a man who is not only believable but ultimately sympathetic. Like everyone here, he's just wearing blinders to the things he doesn't care to see.
One of the most thoughtful scenes is when Adam and Butch are tossed alone together on a couch. Luke, who can't come out to his parents, has "de-gayed" the apartment by tossing out the throw pillows and the Truman Capote novels. But still Butch senses something awry that makes him try to bond with his son in a moment fraught with fear and regret.
Scheie and Carpenter, two masterful actors, mine the silences for as much meaning as the words, revealing the way people avert their gaze from the truth. Until it's too late.
By Geoffrey Nauffts, presented by San Jose Repertory Theatre
Through: Nov. 10
Where: San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio
Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $29-$69, 408-367-7255, www.sjrep.com