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A gay Southern evangelical struggles in New York in Next Fall 

Busy schedules, emotional entanglements, depression and simple inertia all intersect at the same sterile response: avoidance. In Geoffrey Nauffts' drama, Next Fall, the title refers to when Luke plans to tell his parents that he is gay -- and that he and Adam are splitting the rent in their Manhattan apartment. Nauffts could also have called his script "I Can't Talk About This Right Now," since that's what Luke tells Adam when the great issue first comes up that will drive a wedge between them throughout their five-year relationship.

A struggling actor from way out of town, Luke is an evangelical who devoutly believes in The Rapture, although homosexuality is condemned by his faith and there is no chance that the unbelieving Adam will be joining him on that divine magic carpet ride. Yet in his adopted Big Apple habitat, Luke is in some ways more loosey-goosey than his lover. It's Adam who has qualms about initiating a relationship with someone so much younger than he is, and it's Adam who has more difficulty loving his partner as he is.

Adam has some avoidance issues of his own. For a long time, he has worked in a candle shop as a clerk. While the shop owner, Holly, is nurturing and understanding, the job in no way jibes with Adam's aspirations or potential.

When the lights go up on the current Actor's Theatre production, we're seeing Adam and Holly in a hospital, the perfect place for hammering home the reality that we don't have all the time in the world to confront life's biggest issues. Luke is learning that the hard way: After a taxicab accident, he is lying comatose in a private room. Of course, Adam's epiphany is rather painful, too, particularly since he has no legal authority to see his partner. Also gathered in the waiting room are Brandon, Luke's closest friend before Adam came along, and Luke's parents.

Mom and Dad are an interesting Southern study. Arlene is a recovering drug addict while Butch is the family's chief Bible thumper. Both are preoccupied with how Luke is doing in the fight for his life, how they will care for him when the long rehab begins. But with the two men who know him best joining them in their vigil, neither seems interested in discovering who Luke has become since migrating North.

Nauffts contrives awkwardly — and needlessly — to delay the moment when Butch and Arlene learn their son's secret. Fortunately, director Dennis Delamar keeps us focused on the play's strengths, aided by a versatile set design from Chip Decker that conceals a couple of satisfying surprises. It also helps that Josh Looney brings Luke to life, in five years of flashbacks, with his most powerful Charlotte performance to date. The lad has certainly matured handsomely since he butchered Brick three years ago in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Christian Casper brings a mix of warmth, anger, and anguish to his portrayal of Adam — leavened with a welcome dollop of snarkiness. The essence of the evening, beyond its carpe diem commonplaces, is the fascinating scene where Adam confronts Luke on his practice of kneeling penitently in prayer after their lovemaking. Provocative stuff.

Seeing Jerry Colbert play someone as pigheaded-ignorant as Butch was disorienting for me, but he does don a suit in the flashbacks — and his disintegration in the denouement is purest heartbreak. Polly Adkins as Arlene and Sheila Snow Proctor as Holly don't have as much to challenge them, effortlessly contrasting rusticity and urban sophistication. Scott Alexander Miller gives a fine account of Brandon, making me wish that Nauffts had developed this enigmatic yuppie a little more speedily.

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