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Actors Theatre's Next Fall -- Not Their Last, We Hope

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Okay, so it was on the Cracked website, but nevertheless, science is discovering that reason is as specious and arbitrary as anything else created by the human mind. It's a set of rules we pulled out of our asses to be able to win arguments, because winning arguments is a trait that contributes to survival. You're welcome.

This is relevant to playgoing partly because there's always a delicate dance between characters (not to mention the actors who portray them) and the audience. It's a navigation of the constant tension between authenticity and charm, dependent on the ever-shifting proportion of each that goes into making something interesting, i.e., entertaining.

We tend to want to be liked, whether we admit it or not. And we tend to like people who agree with us -- but we do want other kinds of people in the world, too (whether we admit it or not), because it keeps things from getting boring, and it also lets us feel like oppressed, deserving heroes in our own stories.

You'll have a good time if you attend Actors Theatre's current production of Next Fall at the Herberger, I can almost guarantee -- because it's full of completely realized characters who feel very differently about a number of things (so you're bound to like at least some of them), and it lets you see that even people you practically can't stand might have good, loving hearts and benefit from their association with you, and vice versa.

Though the play is sort of a big, sloppy melodrama underneath, it's full of brainy laughs thanks to Matthew Wiener's impeccably timed direction of his gifted cast in delivering the rich-yet-sassy dialogue of author Geoffrey Nauffts. That means you don't have to worry about whether you're in the mood for the complexity of being deeply in love with a deeply flawed human being, the extra-special complexity of partially closeted, ostensibly self-loathing gay relationships, family drama, hospitals, comas, and whether you need Jesus to save you, because you can be in the mood for a honking comedy and the show will still do its job.

But about that complexity: If you've ever found the coupling of certain flavors of Christianity with homophobia to be baffling, especially when expressed as love for gay people but hatred of their sexuality, it'll look even weirder to you when you meet a couple of Next Fall's characters -- actual gay people who are devoutly, cheerfully Christian and think they're sinning and need forgiveness every time they behave the way God made them. That's from my shoes, I suppose; there are several human conundrums on display here, and it might be that a different one takes prominence for you.

Jeff Thomson's spare set works to smoothly and effectively slide the action between the visceral, life-altering present -- a period of approximately 24 grueling hours that seems to last forever -- and flashbacks that contain precisely the pieces we require to form our own attachments and resonances to it. I particularly like a massive panel of institutionally orange plaid draperies that covers what just about has to be (in the world of the play) an equally massive window that's never opened, uncovered, or even acknowledged. Heavy, man.

Actors Theatre is, as you may have heard, facing an unusually severe financial crisis. As artistic director Wiener put it on opening night of Next Fall, it would be great if they can stay around, simply, if for no other reason, because he wants to see their next show, Hunter Gatherers. So do I.

Every one of their "next" shows I've ever seen has been pretty darn cool -- so before you write them off by saying, "I can barely afford to feed my family," even though that's very likely true, please read this and think about some way you could help, even just by spreading the word to people who might know people who do have even $10 to donate. And try to see this show!

Next Fall continues through Sunday, November 13, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. For tickets, $20.50 to $43.50, click here or call 602-252-8497.

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