Sheryl Kaller Explores Faith vs. Family in Next Fall

by Deborah Behrens | November 2, 2011

Betsy Brandt, Geoffry Nauffts and James Wolk in “Next Fall”

Sheryl Kaller believes in gratitude. After all, how often does a director get to travel with a play from reading to workshop, Off-Broadway to Broadway, earn a Tony Award nomination in the process and then helm its West Coast premiere?

“How lucky am I?” she laughs on a mid-October night in Westwood, as the thermometer hovers around 85. She’s seated outdoors at a California Pizza Kitchen mere blocks from the Geffen Playhouse where Geoffrey Nauffts’ Next Fall opens November 2. It’s the third week of rehearsals and things are going well.

“It was a good day today,” Kaller offers. “I got to wake up, speak to my children who are in two different states right now and walk to rehearsal in Los Angeles. Not even drive a car! Walk to rehearsal and work with people that I respect and admire. I aspire to feeling like I feel today every single day.”

“Humbled” and “fortunate” are regular parts of the Long Island native’s vocabulary, whether speaking about future project opportunities or that morning’s scene work triumphs. Appreciating life’s moments of grace is something Kaller says she gleaned from her long journey with the play.

Sheryl Kaller

“I try to start every single day in gratitude. I’m grateful to be walking to rehearsal today with such talented actors, so let me be the best I can be because of that. I’m grateful to be sitting outside in Los Angeles at 10 at night and not be in the cold. The simplicity and complexity of gratitude is what I’ve been working on and I learned that from doing Next Fall.”

Of course the sunny mood that accompanied that period two weeks ago ended abruptly at the Geffen on Monday afternoon, when the theater’s founder and producing director Gil Cates collapsed and died in a nearby UCLA parking lot. Because of the shock and sadness surrounding Cates’ death, there will be no opening night pre-show or post-curtain celebrations for Next Fall.

“I’m so grateful for all the loving guidance that Gil gave to me and this production,” said Kaller via phone today. “The idea of his not being here is saddening, but it is an honor to celebrate his life with this play.”

Next Fall itself is hardly about blissful good times. It charts the five-year evolution of an odd couple pairing — neurotic 40ish atheist Adam with the much younger and hotter devout Christian Luke. Luke not only believes homosexuality is a sin, which can be absolved at the pearly gates, but he thinks hypochondriac Adam will go to hell for not accepting Jesus as his savior. How and why they remain together despite their polar opposite religious viewpoints form the central intellectual crux of the piece.

The comedy/drama opens in a New York City hospital waiting room where Luke lies in a coma, then travels back and forth in time to reveal pivotal relationship moments between the two, as well as other friends and family members. These include Holly, Adam’s friend and candle store owner; Luke’s pal Brandon, a Christian who doesn’t accept their relationship; and Luke’s divorced parents — Butch, a born-again fundamentalist and Arlene, a Southern belle with a wild gal past. For Kaller, family is the show’s dominant theme.

“Yes, there is religion in this play,” she explains. “Yes, it’s the love story of two men so we have the same-sex theme going on. But it’s about family. It’s about what we expect from our family. It’s about what we don’t get from our family. It’s the fear of our families not loving us. It’s the fear of our families loving us too much. It’s about acceptance and love and all within a family, blood and not blood. More than any other play I’ve ever worked on and almost more than any other play I’ve ever seen, this is about family. I feel incredibly fortunate to bring my experiences and my heart to this play from a mama’s point of view.”

Geoffrey Nauffts and James Wolk in “Next Fall”

The Geffen production marks a reunion for director Kaller and playwright Nauffts, who is an actor, writer and until just recently, the artistic director of New York’s Naked Angels theater company — whose roster includes Jane Alexander, Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jon Robin Baitz, Joe Mantello, Theresa Rebeck and Marisa Tomei. Nauffts has significant Broadway, Off-Broadway and national touring credits, as well as stints in numerous television series. He directed Stephen Belber’s Tape for Naked Angels in New York, LA and London. Nauffts was also a writer on Brothers & Sisters for two years and is collaborating with Elton John on a score for the screenplay Showstopper.

Kaller has directing credits with a wide variety of leading nonprofit theaters on both coasts. She has developed new plays with writers such as Christopher Durang, Peter Melnick, Regina Taylor, Dick Beebe and Alan Menken. It was her work on Durang and Melnick’s new musical Adrift in Macao at Primary Stages in 2007 that in part led Jenny Gersten, the former Naked Angels artistic director who is now heading up Williamstown Theatre Festival, to suggest Kaller for an initial reading of Nauffts’ new play later that year.

Nauffts and Kaller have been simpatico traveling companions since that first reading. They’ve taken the play through a subsequent workshop, the Naked Angels world premiere production at Playwrights Horizons in June 2009 and the March 2010 Broadway transfer to the Helen Hayes Theater — all with the original cast intact. Via those various incarnations, the play garnered the Outer Circle Critics’ John Gassner Award” in 2010 for best new American play, then picked up 2010 Tony Award nominations for best play and direction, alongside others including the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play and Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding new Broadway play.

The Geffen outing is the duo’s first time revisiting the piece with a new group of actors and the first time Nauffts is tackling the part of Adam. Patrick Breen, the playwright’s friend of 30 years and fellow Naked Angels company member, played the role through both NYC runs without missing a show. Kaller says Breen felt Nauffts needed to do the role and gave him his blessing. The Geffen ensemble also features James Wolk (Lonestar) as Luke, Lesley Ann Warren (Victor/Victoria) as Arlene, Jeff Fahey (Lost) as Butch, Betsy Brandt (Breaking Bad) as Holly and Ken Barnett (Atlanta) as Brandon.

Ken Barnett and Lesley Ann Warren

Working with Nauffts on the character he created was one of the biggest reasons Kaller decided to explore the play again after its successful NYC life.

“What’s been so great for Geoff and me is we have such a shorthand,” she enthuses. “We have this magnificent collaboration and now it’s just being flushed out even more deeply. Like I found today. I gave him a note on a certain scene and I said, “˜You always gave me that note. Now I’m giving it back to you.’ And he’s like, “˜Oh, you’re right.’ And I said, “˜No, you’re right. It’s your note. It’s just coming back to you.’ I think what’s been most surprising to him is that the moments the actors felt were difficult, he’s finding difficult too, so that’s been really fun.”

The other reason to do it was the opportunity to work at the Geffen. “I came to see a play at the Geffen with my dear friend and collaborator Suzi Dietz a couple of years ago, and I said, ‘All right, if I ever direct Next Fall outside of New York, this is the theater I want to do it in.’ Suzie connected Geoffrey and me to Randy Arney and we all had a breakfast meeting at Hugo’s. Later we got word that the Geffen wanted to do it. So that was how that came about.”

Walking Her Talk

Clad in her signature Dansko clogs, khaki Capri-length cargo pants, t-shirt and vest, with her curly dark brown hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, Kaller looks more like a Berkeley earth mother than one of theater’s more sought-after directors. She is respected by peers for her grounded walk-her-talk authenticity and generous collaborative style in a field noted for controlling egos.

The last time LA audiences saw her was when Kaller directed the new musical Dangerous Beauty, which re-opened the Pasadena Playhouse earlier this year. (Full disclosure: LA STAGE Times covered the show as an embedded spectator from its first production meeting to closing night. See Dangerous Beauty Diaries I, II, and III.) Kaller had been part of its 10-year development since a 2005 reading at the Rubicon Theatre.

James Wolk and Jeff Fahey

“I had a wonderful creative team,” she says of the experience. “I think the theater community out here is beyond terrific. It was such a pleasure to help rejuvenate the Pasadena Playhouse. I feel like we were really embraced by our audiences. It was our first production of a really, really difficult nut to crack. I think we got what we needed to get from it and learned a lot. Developing a new musical is such a crap shoot and you have to be in it for the long haul. I’m so proud of what we did. As far as the future, that’s really up to the writers and how they want to push the play forward.”

Returning to LA to do Next Fall feels timely to Kaller, given California’s current court battle over gay marriage.

“It feels pretty significant to do the play here because of Prop. 8. When we performed it in New York, gay marriage was not passed. It was subsequently passed after we closed and now we are here in a state that had it and then took it away. Gay marriage is still a moving target in 2011. People who love each other can’t enter a hospital room if the state doesn’t deem it okay. It’s one of the reasons why this play is so relevant and so freaking sad. It just makes me so sad.”

Kaller says doing shows such as Dangerous Beauty, which advocates a woman’s right to choose her own destiny, or Next Fall, which champions the acceptance of gay relationships despite religious teachings, is not about preaching to the converted. For her it has to do with theater’s ability to transform those who come holding a different point of view.

“We all know that women drag their husbands to see plays,” she explains. “I cannot count on a hundred hands how many older dudes sat in both of those [NYC] theaters silently thinking, ‘Are you kidding me, wife? You are taking me to see a play about religion? About gay boys and about love? No thank you.’ They sat there with their arms crossed. Within the first five minutes of the first scene, they were open vessels and by the end of the play, they were on their feet or weeping. It was unreal.  Or being stopped in Times Square by young men coming over to hug and kiss me, saying, ‘Thank you. I brought my parents to this play so that I can come out.’ I mean it still slays me.”

James Wolk and Geoffrey Nauffts

Various religious leaders were invited to the show and had their own revelations. “A Catholic priest came to see Next Fall who had gay members in his church. He never understood how someone could not believe that Jesus is our Lord God. He never understood how people couldn’t understand that. He came to see the play but was not planning to sermonize on it. He wound up giving three sermons at high mass the following Sundays and not sermons about Luke, the Christian character who believed in Jesus. He wound up giving sermons about Adam, the atheist, and how seeing Adam in Next Fall opened up his eyes to what the church is responsible for and to whom.

“I could go on and on and on. The only theater I’m interested in doing is this kind of theater, and it might keep me in the poor house,” she laughs.

New York to LA

While Kaller admits there were significant re-writes between the Off-Broadway and Broadway production, the minor “shavings” underway in the LA production have less to do with revisions she wishes they’d done in New York and more with specific word enhancements for the new cast. The Geffen production is its own entity and not to be perceived as a chance for a “do-over.” In fact, Kaller says she was content to never direct the play again.

“I sat at the closing performance on Broadway and said I wouldn’t change a second of this thing,” she states. “Anything that any actor is doing, anything that I did, anything those designers did, I wouldn’t. I’ve never felt that about anything I’ve ever worked on ever, ever, ever, never, ever! What a privilege to be able to take a play on again and discover it with that confidence. Now a whole new group of actors are in the room and it’s different. It’s different because it’s different. It’s not different because anything was wrong or I wanted to do anything differently from the last time.”

Kaller feels indebted to the New York cast for the year they spent working together on Next Fall. “I get to bring everything that they brought to it, everything they taught me and I taught them, and our shared experience. Now with new actors I get to see number one, how sturdy the play is and two, what new people can offer to it. These LA actors are just extraordinary and they are all theater rats.”

 

Ken Barnett and Geoffrey Nauffts in “Next Fall”

New York Times critic Ben Brantley gave the play high marks for both the Off-Broadway and Broadway runs. Kaller doesn’t read reviews “because I give the good ones just as much power as I give the bad ones.” Nevertheless when told that Brantley said her direction was “if anything, more fluid and organic” and that the play “achieved the tricky and necessary feat of retaining its subtlety while increasing its clarity in making the transfer to Broadway,” she acknowledges the praise.

“Thank you, Mr. Brantley,” she says with a smile. “That was the goal.”

It is hard then not to read her what is certainly one of Brantley’s most laudatory ledes: “A flourishing member of a precious and nearly extinct species has been sighted on Broadway, looking remarkably vital and sure of itself for a creature so often given up for dead. Next Fall…is that genuine rara avis, a smart, sensitive and utterly contemporary New York comedy. The question is whether theatergoers will recognize that Next Fall embodies something they’ve been sorely missing, perhaps without knowing it, for years.”

“Wow, that’s the first time I’m hearing this. It’s the first time I hear this,” Kaller declares, sitting back to take it in. “I agree with him!” she laughs and begins to blush. “In revisiting this play, I agree with him wholeheartedly! That’s a nice opening paragraph,” she admits after a beat, her face displaying some emotion.

Upon pointing that out, Kaller laughs self-consciously. “I know! You can see I never heard that!”

“It’s the gift that Geoffrey Nauffts gave us with this play,” she continues in earnest. “I think its one of the biggest reasons why it’s so fulfilling at every turn. I’ve questioned myself subsequent to doing this play and now doing it again. I’ve absolutely questioned how much more theater do I really want to do, because I don’t know how much better it’s ever going to get, ever. It’s this fortunate experience of working on a play that is deserving of all the time and talent it’s been given.”

Lesley Ann Warren and Betsy Brandt

Now that the show has migrated to the Geffen, what does she hope will be said about the directing in this latest incarnation?

“That’s a great question. I feel like we started getting a lot of that magic in the room here so I’m excited about that. I think as always with this play, it has to take the front seat. In New York, my job was to direct in a way so my hand wasn’t shown. I am so fortunate to have gotten the Tony nomination for a play that wasn’t fancy directing, which you have to do sometimes on purpose. I’ve done that before. So I want it to occupy the front seat once again because that means I’ve done my job right.”

As for what she wants people to take away from the evening, Kaller is clear.

“I want people to talk. I don’t wanted it to be a sorbet, I want it to be a meal. I want it to linger. I want to pose enough questions and explore enough on the stage that we elicit discussion.”

A New Empty Nester

With both daughters now in college, Kaller and her husband are empty nesters for the first time, and the call of the open road beckons.

“I would like to do a lot of traveling,” she admits. “I’m interested in working in different cities now. [Since the Tony nomination], I’m definitely getting a lot more offers. For the most part all I have to do is get someone to make a phone call and at least I’ll get the opportunity to talk to the artistic directors.”

Future in-the-works projects include The Great Game on Broadway, a new Billy Porter play, Nick Blaemire’s new musical Finding Robert Hutchens, David Solomon’s Margaret and Craig about female impersonator Craig Russell starring Mario Cantone, a straight-to-Broadway play and something of her own creation.

James Wolk and Geoffrey Nauffts

“I’m really exploring the idea of underscoring old plays on stage with a live band. I’ve never worked on revivals before but I’m a huge Brecht freak. So I’m really interested in doing Caucasian Chalk Circle and setting it in a particular time and place that I am not at liberty to say right now.”

While in LA, Kaller is also pursuing television opportunities. “I would also like to add some zeros to my paycheck and direct some television. I’m going to observe on some sets. I’m excited to learn how to do it.”

Kaller knows her gender places her in a very rarefied but highly competitive talent pool. “I could get really caught up with male directors having way more opportunity than female directors. But I aspire to not chase after what I don’t have. I aspire to chase after what I want and celebrate what I have.”

Next Fall, presented by the Geffen Playhouse. Opens tonight. Plays Tues.-Fri. 8 pm; Sat. 3 pm and 8 pm; Sun. 2 pm and 7 pm. Through Dec. 4. Tickets: $47-77. Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood, Los Angeles. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.

***All Next Fall production photos by Michael Lamont