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"Next Fall", now at the Unicorn Theatre, is a fresh take on gay relationships

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From Mart Crowley’s groundbreaking (if rudimentary) late-60s work The Boys in the Band, to Tony Kushner’s triumphant turn-of-the-century Angels in America, to the more recent crop of frivolous and flippant musical revues (Naked Boys Singing anyone?), gay-themed theater has come a long way in a relatively short time. Certainly, by 2012 even the most casual theater-goer is accustomed to—maybe even expecting—at least some gay content in a play.

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So New York actor and playwright Geoffrey Nauffs 2010 gay theater success, the Tony-nominated play Next Fall, now at the Unicorn Theatre, seems to have scored a bit of a coup by examining a gay relationship from a new, unexpected angle—hunky Luke, here played by Kansas City theater veteran Rusty Sneary, is a devout Christian, while his partner, the older Adam (Charles Fugate), is an atheist. This plot device “[I]s metaphorical, in a way, for a lot of issues that come about in relationships,” according to Sneary, whom I recently interviewed along with cast mate Merle Moores and director Jeff Church.

Sneary, who in 2010 founded the Midtown venue The Living Room, says that Luke and Adam share a “case of relationships where, you know, the differences are ignored…they each think they’re going to change the other and their love will change together and that they’ll reach a compromise…and you float by optimistically thinking that if we spend enough time together all these things will iron themselves out, until one day you’re staring at someone you don’t know...”

Sneary’s analysis is a poignant summing-up of Next Fall, to which director Jeff Church, who also acts as Coterie Theater’s producing artistic director, adds “The play has a lot of ideas floating around in it—we’re still trying to wrap our brain around them.”

In addition to the believer/non-believer aspect of the work, Church says “[T]here’s sort of a gay marriage thing that sort of hangs over this play, because…they’re talking about adopting children, a baby, some things like that…”

To this heady mix of issues Nauffts adds the thorny debate of hospital visitation rights, which is precipitated by an accident Luke sustains before the play opens. Church says it’s “…new and different to try and deal with those kind of high-stakes emotions that people make—decisions about who gets to visit and who doesn’t.”

Luke’s divorced parents, who show up after their son’s accident, are played by Merle Moores and Mark Robbins, also Kansas City theater veterans. Moores, whose last turn was a brilliant one as the volcanic Violet in Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s season opener August, Osage County, says “You know, plays are always a journey. It’s always fun to get into them and talk about them…there’s always a surprise, there’s always new things and it’s generally more interesting than you thought because people bring different things…it’s a journey we all take.”

Moores has been at her craft since childhood, having taken dramatic lessons since the age of 12. “After a very short period of time,” she remembers, “I said, ‘This is it—I love this.’” After graduating from Omaha University (now University of Nebraska at Omaha) Moores moved to New York, where she studied at the American Academy. After marrying and being out of theater for several years, she and her family moved back to Kansas City.

“[I] got back into theater really after I moved back to Kansas City…My husband brought me here. I didn’t want to come back to the Midwest, and he said ‘You’ll love Kansas City’, and I did. However, the Kansas City then, which was, like, 34 years ago, was totally different theatrically, artistically, in every way…as opposed to know, [when] it’s exploding in all the arts.

“I think it’s fabulous—it’s exciting to be here now, wonderful. I’m so proud to be here. Great people, great talent.”

Charles Fugate, as Luke’s older lover Adam, helps round out the cast. One of Fugate’s more memorable recent roles include a turn as the Nazi character Ernst Ludwig in Kansas City Rep’s stellar 2011 production of Cabaret.

Next Fallplays at the Unicorn Theatre’s main stage through February 12. For tickets and more information call the Unicorn’s box office at (816) 531-PLAY (7529); or visit its website, unicorntheatre.org.

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