"Next Fall'' is a story of collisions _ of beliefs and nonbeliefs, and of a taxi accident that leaves one of the characters in a coma and another questioning his faith or lack of it.
The drama has stirred considerable interest on Broadway and not just because of the favorable reviews. It's a new American play with no stars. And it is written by a soft-spoken, 49-year-old playwright whose marquee value is outshone by two of its many producers, Elton John and his partner David Furnish. In the star-struck arena that Broadway has become for plays, how ``Next Fall'' fares over the coming weeks will be closely watched.
Not that author Geoffrey Nauffts doesn't have theater, film and television experience. As an actor, he's worked extensively in New York and Los Angeles. And he's currently artistic director of Naked Angels, a small, celebrity-flecked New York theater company specializing in the development of new work and where "Next Fall'' was midwived.
The play, which opened in March after a successful off-Broadway run last summer, is a personal, poignant story, yet, surprisingly, filled with humor.
Much of the play takes place in a hospital waiting room where five people gather, including the partner of the young gay man seriously injured by that taxi. While they worry, "Next Fall'' flashes back to tell the story of the relationship between the two men _ one with fundamentalist views, the other not _ and their thorny discussions about religion.
"I have always been interested in faith,'' Nauffts said in an interview. "I didn't grow up with any kind of particular faith. Yet I have always sort of been fascinated by the big questions. That was my starting point. I just thought our world in general is so polarized and I wanted to examine (that) polarization on a very human level.''
That the couple, played by Patrick Breen and Patrick Heusinger, is also gay adds another layer to the play's complexity.
"I am a gay man myself so I tend in my writing to come from that perspective, although I think that my exploration (here) goes beyond that,'' Nauffts explained. "I think 'Next Fall' is a very human story and I think you can substitute any kind of relationship ... and the play would still resonate.''
Sheryl Kaller, the director, agrees.
"The scope of the story is so vast, and Geoffrey poses all these questions yet doesn't pass comments on them,'' she said. "He doesn't make judgments on these people that he writes about but lets an audience come to its own answers.
"So the people that he writes about in the play, the family relationships that he writes about ... and the fact that he doesn't give us answers are a director's dream.''
Nauffts began writing plays more than a decade ago. The Ohio-born actor graduated from New York University and worked in New York theater, most notably on Broadway in Aaron Sorkin's "A Few Good Men'' in 1989 and later off-Broadway in a revival of the George S. Kaufman-Ring Lardner comedy "June Moon,'' and "Snakebit'' by David Marshall Grant.
But it was at Naked Angels, then run by Jenny Gersten, where he started to stretch his creative horizons, not just by acting, but by directing and writing as well. "That's the beauty of belonging to a theater company,'' he said. "I had a safe haven where I could create.''
The birthing of "Next Fall,'' which Nauffts described as a three-year process, began under Gersten's tenure at Naked Angels.
"We did a couple of different workshops,'' the playwright recalled. "I was able to hear it out loud in front of an audience several different times. And every time I put it out there, I would always go back, rework it and rewrite it.''
Naked Angels presented "Next Fall'' last summer at the small theater in the Playwright Horizons building on West 42nd Street. Reviews and audience reaction were so positive that the show kept getting extended _ again and again.
That prompted talk of a transfer, according to Barbara Manocherian, a longtime Naked Angels supporter who helped bring the show to Broadway's Helen Hayes Theatre. "There was this feeling that we had a story that people needed to hear,'' she said.
A parade of producers came together, including Richard Willis, who is associated with the Helen Hayes.
"I wouldn't say it was easy (bringing the play to Broadway),'' Willis explained. "No play is easy, especially without stars. But if you look at the roster of producers we have, there are some young producers and there are some real veterans who have between seven and 15 Tonys to their names. So there are a lot of different people who believe in this piece and believe in Geoffrey's talent and want Broadway to see and hear this piece.''
The thought of recasting the play with stars after the off-Broadway run was discussed but discarded, according to Nauffts.
"We were such a family at that point and ... to mess with that just became so dicey,'' the playwright said. "I think the producers very bravely and courageously said, `Hey, we want to keep everyone together. This is what was the magic before.'''
Whatever happens to ``Next Fall,'' Nauffts already has another job. He's branched out into writing for television, too. He's now on the writing staff of ABC's "Brothers & Sisters,'' a series created by Jon Robin Baitz, who happens to be a Naked Angels company member.
"It's very quick _ insane. It's just insane,'' he said with a laugh. "I've been an actor in front of the camera but to be on the other side now, it's been fascinating. I think the main difference with TV writing is that it's very collaborative, meaning you are but one voice in a room of many. ...
"To have a play go on where the playwright is the only writer (and) balancing this other world where we're all in a room and everyone's contributing has been really, really great.''