As a result of the play Next Fall, Chris Dinolfo came out to his dad.
''I actually came out to my dad and my stepmom after we did the first sit-down read [in rehearsals],'' Dinolfo says. He stars as Luke in Round House Theatre's production of the 2009 Tony-nominated play by Geoffrey Nauffts, which is both humorous and incredibly touching.
''Next Fall'' at Roundhouse: Tom Story and Chris Dinolfo
The play centers on gay couple Adam and Luke, and the consequences of Luke not coming out to his clueless dad before Luke suffers a terrible accident that leaves him comatose. ''I could have you thrown out of here and there's nothing you could do about it,'' the father, played by Kevin Cutts, tells Adam, played by Tom Story, during a pivotal moment in Luke's hospital room.
''It's such an awful thought that people are still subjected to that discrimination,'' says Dinolfo. Especially so, since to a large extent it's self-inflicted discrimination, a factor of remaining closeted. ''It's not worth it to keep something like this from your family,'' Dinolfo reasons. ''If you love them and you want relationships with them, you have to be fully open and honest about it.''
''It's the most amazing thing that that happened,'' says Story about Dinolfo coming out to his dad after what Story adds was a particularly emotional rehearsal.
Dinolfo and Story, in fact, aren't just playing a couple onstage in Bethesda. They actually live as one in the Kalorama neighborhood of D.C. And in several respects, Next Fall parallels their real life, including how they met five years ago.
In between acting gigs, Dinolfo signed up to be on the crew at Studio Theatre during its production of The Pillowman, which starred Story. ''I walked in on the first day [and] Tom Story was one of the first people I saw,'' says Dinolfo. ''It was sort of an instant reaction. And then we flirted with each other hardcore for about three weeks before anything really happened.''
Dinolfo did everything he could to get close to Story, just as Luke sticks close to Adam when they first meet in Next Fall at a party.
Dinolfo introduced Story early on to his mother. ''I remember my mom said to me, 'Be careful,''' he says, because of the age difference: At the time, Story was 33, Dinolfo 22. And Story is Dinolfo's first serious boyfriend.
For his part, Story says his friends would say, ''Oh, this is just a rebound,'' as Story was just getting out of a previous relationship. ''From the beginning, because of the big age difference,'' says Story, ''I would say to him, 'too much future,' when we would talk about what was going to happen. Let's just be in this moment and not worry too much about next year or whatever.''
The two actors first appeared together on stage a few years ago in a production of Henry IV: Part I at Folger Theatre. ''We played brothers, oddly enough,'' laughs Dinolfo. ''We had a short exchange [onstage], but that was the extent of it.''
For Next Fall, Story was cast as Adam well before Dinolfo as Luke. In fact, Dinolfo was initially reluctant to take on the role, unsure if the theater would even allow a couple working together, and concerned about what people would say. In the end, Story persuaded Dinolfo to try out for the role. ''I remember when I read the play I thought, this is such a good part for Chris,'' says Story. So Dinolfo called to inquire about an audition. He only got the part after a callback and the director, Mark Ramont, cleared it with Story and the show's producers.
Both actors say being intimate in front of hundreds of people isn't a challenge. ''[Ultimately] it's not our lives up there,'' says Story. ''It's not the Chris and Tom story, it's the Luke and Adam story. And that story is different from our own lives.''
Each actor concedes he shares definite personality traits with the character he plays. Story says he's ''a complete hypochondriac'' and also to an extent ''uses humor to get close to people and to push people away,'' as Adam does. Meanwhile, Dinolfo says, like Luke, ''I'm more sort of relaxed and more optimistic about things.''
Adam and Luke also get into heated exchanges onstage. ''We don't fight a lot [in real life], but we can certainly tap into that,'' says Story, laughing that arguing onstage is ''not as hard as you would think.''
Both men found support among their families to take up acting. Dinolfo, who grew up in Connecticut, says his father is a writer and former theater critic. Story, who grew up in Woodbridge, Va., laughs remembering a moment from his childhood when he acted out a scene from a medieval knights film while standing on his grandmother's coffee table. ''Oh no, I think you're an actor,'' she said with disdain. Still, his family was on board when he switched from his original plan to become a doctor going to Duke University and went on to also pursue an acting degree from Juilliard.
The key conflict in Next Fall is ultimately about religion.
''It's a gay play only in that the conflict between fundamental Christianity and gayness is the vehicle in which religion in our society is examined,'' says Story. In the play, Luke, a born-again Christian, believes his own lover Adam will go to Hell if he doesn't accept Jesus as his personal savior. Adam, meanwhile, is a die-hard agnostic.
Neither actor professes to be particularly religious, though religion has been a conflict in real life too: It's the main reason Dinolfo hesitated to come out to his father, a devout Catholic. He needn't have worried.
''It was as if it was different people I was talking to,'' Dinolfo says about coming out to his dad and stepmom, who live in South Carolina. ''They were very accepting.'' His stepmother only gasped when he revealed that he had a boyfriend of five years. She was dismayed that they had been kept out of the loop.
Meanwhile, his dad said, ''We know this was a difficult call for you to make and it took a lot of courage and we respect that. We love you.''
Next Fall runs to Feb. 26 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Tickets are $26 to $56. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.