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Thornton Wilder’s Legacy in Contemporary Theater

Thornton Wilder passed away almost 35 years ago, but he’s still a popular commodity Off-Broadway. His 1938 play Our Town can be currently seen in David Cromer’s production running at the Barrow Street Theater—plus Our Town also features prominently in the new drama, Next Fall (a production by Naked Angels, playing at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater through Saturday night).

It was announced last week that the Cromer revival of Our Town—which opened in February—has been extended through next January. This is good news, not just since it’s a fine production of a classic play, but because it shows that despite the cries of shrinking attention spans and shrinking budgets, good Off-Broadway theater still is finding an audience.

The sad news about Our Town’s extension is that David Cromer—who in addition to directing also has been playing the lead role of the Stage Manager—is leaving the production after August 16th. (He has to start rehearsals on his Broadway debut: directing two plays by Neil Simon that open this fall.)

Cromer’s brisk, no-nonsense approach to the role, heard in the flat cadences and unsentimental tone of his voice, is a large part of what makes this minimalist Our Town feel so different, so direct and so appropriate to our times. The rest of the cast is assured and Cromer’s staging is solid enough that the production will no doubt continue to win over audiences; but if you’ve been meaning to see Our Town, there’s no reason not to see it with Cromer himself as your guide to Grover’s Corner.

Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work plays a supporting role in Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall. The central character in Next Fall is a young actor from Florida named Luke whose break comes when he plays the Stage Manager in a small, Off-Off Broadway production of Our Town.

Next FallThe main drama in Next Fall revolves around Luke’s struggle to define both his fundamentalist Christian beliefs and his life as a gay, New York actor. Actor Patrick Heusinger plays Luke with the right balance of naïveté and southern charm. His incongruous life feels believable to us in the audience, even if it’s unbelievable to Adam, Luke’s boyfriend in the play, played with humor and deadpan exasperation by Patrick Breen.

An accident involving a taxicab gives Next Fall its rather conventional structure: scenes in the hospital waiting room intercut with scenes from the past. This format may feel soap-operatic at times, but it allows for a subplot involving Adam and Luke’s born-again father that provides both tension and a topical relevance that feels earned.

Naufft’s play is very much a conventional drama, but his dialogue is sharp, funny, and even the play’s heaviest moments don’t descend into weepy melodrama. (It helps that they are staged with an appropriately light touch by director Sheryl Kaller.) To read Next Fall would likely scan as a solid sample script—or perhaps a first novel. What makes seeing Next Fall on stage a fuller experience is the talented cast. Heusinger and Breen are excellent and the other actors play their parts with a natural assurance—especially Cotter Smith as the closed-minded, loving, but self-deluding father.

Next Fall contains no great truths and its observations about being gay in Manhattan in the aughts are hardly novel; what Naufft does is simply create six carefully drawn human beings that need no gimmicks to grab our attention. Next Fall is no Our Town, but Naufft has a similar trust in something Wilder clearly believed when writing his classic: sometimes, the simply told stories are the ones that stay with us.

Photo: (L to R) Patrick Heusinger and Patrick Breen in the Naked Angels production of Next Fall by Geoffrey Nauffts. Photograph by Carol Rosegg.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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