After a StageWorks Fresno play reading, I often leave on a theatrical high. Sunday’s reading of Geoffrey Naufft’s expressive and poignant “Next Fall” (which played on Broadway in 2010) didn’t let me down. It was an exceptional experience.
I’m always a sucker for a gorgeously produced, big-budget show, but a part of me, too, loves the stripped-down simplicity and minimalism of a reading. Using actors in street clothes holding their scripts, positioning themselves with a minimum of blocking on a bare stage, a reading relies upon the imagination of the audience to fill in the blanks.
There was nothing on Sunday at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium but actors and words. Yet as I think about the play a day later, it’s amazing how much of it seems firmly formed in my mind. From the chilly, sterile environs of the hospital waiting room in which much of the play takes place, to the well-lived-in New York apartment shared by its gay-couple main characters, those places seemed real.
So, too, did Naufft’s superbly crafted characters. It’s a (slightly) odd-couple story: Luke, late 20ish and a handsome actor, is also a devoted evangelical Christian. Adam, about 15 years older and a not-so-stunning looking, hypochondriacal teacher, is a strong atheist. When a terrible accident puts Luke into a coma, the stage is set to explore several themes, the most important being the role of religion in Luke and Adam’s relationship.
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Sunday’s cast clicked in a memorable way. I was stunned to learn afterward that the actors had done only one read-through of the show at a table reading just a few hours before the public performance. There’s something to be said for taking a group of talented and committed actors and throwing them into the rawness of relatively new characters and text. It all seemed so fresh and in the moment. Rehearsal is essential to just about any theatrical experience, of course, but sometimes it can rub a bit of sharpness off the edges of the emotional building blocks of a play.
An example: In one scene at the reading Sunday, Chris Mangels (playing the older gay-couple character, Adam) meets up with Steven Weatherbee (playing Brandon, a friend of Luke’s). The pair has always had a chilly relationship. Perhaps it’s because Adam – who is comfortably out as a gay man and frustrated that Luke’s religious beliefs keep him closeted with Luke’s parents – feels a bit superior to Brandon, who has his own religious issues with the closet. The remarkable thing for me was that I felt as if I were witnessing a real conversation in real time. There was nothing prepared about it, nothing routine -- just a fresh, raw, human interaction.
Mangels (his usual wonderfully nuanced self) and Weatherbee (who impresses me more each time I see him on stage -- I think he’s a real talent) were terrific. The other cast members (Joel C. Abels, Paula Fansler, Hayley Galbraith, and Daniel Abels Rodriguez) all had stellar moments as well.
Will StageWorks Fresno offer a fully staged production of “Next Fall”? At this point we don’t know. (After a reading of “Casa Valentina,” the company went on to produce it in 2016.) But it’d be a strong contender. Beyond that, however, I know this for sure: A good play reading is hard to beat.