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Tuesday, 22 May 2012 22:14

'God's Favorite' is a trial

Written by Sheila R. Schultz

The Details

If anyone can transform the Book of Job into a comedy, it’s Neil Simon. So I thought. I was wrong.

The original Broadway play debuted in 1974 after the playwright’s string of hits, including “Barefoot in the Park” (1964) and “The Odd Couple”(1965). This play, however, …

The dialogue is didactic and repetitive; the characters are 2-dimensional. Many are idiotic beyond belief. The ending is anticlimactic and the humor is often dated. A successful adaptation requires some surprises, but there are no “Gosh, I didn’t see that coming” moments. To be fair, the play was written shortly after the untimely death of Simon’s wife, Joan at the age of 41. Perhaps the play represents his attempt to make sense of it all.

In the Biblical narrative, Job is described as a man of faith who “fear[s] God and shun[s] evil.” He enjoys vast wealth, a loving wife and healthy children. All is well until Satan confronts the Almighty. Satan insists that Job would not hesitate to commit blasphemy if his fortunes were reversed. The test begins.

Job is abruptly stripped of wealth and beset by domestic tragedy. His trust in God never falters. Later, he becomes afflicted with a variety of agonizing diseases. His faith remains intact. Ultimately, God restores Job’s losses.

Theologically, this tale of unwavering faith is problematic. The play is no less problematic. It seems to deliver a mixed message: absolute faith is a virtue and no good deed goes unpunished. Beneath the comic veneer of God’s Favorite lurks Injustice Divine. Not giggle worthy material. Modernizing the biblical narrative does nothing to mitigate the injustice.

In terms of this production, it is unsettling to watch so many actors drop lines and struggle through each scene. Their performances lack craft, ingenuity and enthusiasm, with a one notable exception.

Jim Dlabick portrays the besieged Joe Benjamin, a prosperous businessman of unswerving faith. He enjoys the comforts of a Long Island mansion with Rose, his pampered wife, a dim-witted pair of twins and a rebellious older son. Dlabick strives mightily, but doesn’t have the chops. The same is true of Pamela Geppert as Rose. Neither actor has a gift for comic timing.

Then we have the delightful Ethan Jones, the one notable exception. He portrays Sidney Lipton, a wise-cracking messenger. Lipton is no ordinary messenger. He is sent sent by God to deliver a series of unhappy prognostications to Joe. In place of wingéd sandals, Sidney sports a pair of comfy Hush Puppies and a maroon T-shirt adorned with a capital G. He has the magnetism of Sportin’ Life from Porgy and Bess, without the sinister motives.

Jones emanates stage presence. He is animated and inventive. When it’s time for a victory dance, he throws in a few Charleston steps. He gets laughs. Things perk up a soon as he bounces onto the stage. He is the saving grace of the production.

There are problems with production values. Despite numerous references to Benjamin’s prosperity, the trappings of wealth are not evident in the set and costume design. Sharon Cotner’s set - the interior of the family living room - is attractive enough, but hardly opulent. In fact, the furnishings seem almost too sparse to accommodate the family of five.

Few of the costumes suggest affluence. Rose’s fur cape is the conspicuous symbol of luxury. That’s about it, except for her jewelry box, dripping with pearl necklaces. Without more trappings of wealth, the family’s reversal of fortune is less meaningful.

Furthermore, the costumes, props and set fail to define a specific era. Without cell phones, CD players or plasma TV’s, it’s not contemporary. Are we transported back to 1970’s? It’s unclear. Sidney earns $137 per week, wears a Robert Hall raincoat and carries a Bic Banana pen. Those are textual clues, but the period looks and feels generic. The director is responsible for creating a unified vision that enriches the dramatic experience. In this respect, Christopher Bain fails.

Bain’s blocking is also a problem. The uncluttered living room set spans the length of the stage, allowing for expansive movement; yet many characters remain glued to one spot for too long. At other times, the blocking is lateralized, which creates a cartoonish, 2-dimensional effect. The visual monotony is relieved when Jones enters and bursts into the third dimension.

Florissant’s Civic Center is a terrific venue. Its theatre is one of my favorites, with the auditorium raked at angle that allows an unobstructed view of the stage for a short people like me. That’s important because a lot of family shows attract young audiences there.

God’s Favorite runs through May 27th at the James J. Eagan Civic Center Theatre, located on Waterford Drive at Parker Road, Florissant 63033. Information is available at www.alphaplayers.org or by calling 314-921-5678 .

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