Monday, 16 June 2014

God's Favorite: ITOPA in top form with lesser Simon comedy

God’s Favorite
By Neil Simon
Directed by Lara Larmour
Approximate running time:  2 hours (with one 10 minute interval)
June 13, 14, 15*, 19, 20, 21 and 22* (* 2 p.m. matinees)
Box Office: 519-485-3070

Review by Geoff Dale

INGERSOLL – Neil Simon is arguably the most prolific, successful and beloved playwright in the world. With countless Tony and Oscar nominations to his name, his works include some of the most recognizable comedies and musicals on the planet.
The mere mention of productions like The Odd Couple (Broadway, silver screen and television versions), Plaza Suite, Sweet Charity and Brighton Beach Memoirs brings a proverbial smile to the faces of those who live for clever, crisp dialogue, beautifully etched two-dimensional characters, rapid-fire one-liners and zingers that liven so much of his work.
So why preface a theatrical review with a glowing and seemingly unnecessary portrait of Simon?
Well, there’s the matter of the puzzling God’s Favorite, one of the playwright’s lesser known creations, a curious comedy – with a decidedly dark side. It has divided both audiences and theatre pundits since its rather short run on Broadway of 119 performances and seven previews from the winter of 1974 to the spring of 1975.
ITOPA, one of Southwestern Ontario’s most innovative and daring risk-taking theatrical companies, has taken it upon itself to launch a version of the work. We give the troupe high marks for such a venture and, on the plus side, in most instances the group does an admirable job, certainly in terms of acting and the eye-catching imaginative set design by Harold Arbuckle and Lara Larmour, who also deserves kudos for her directorial debut.

Yet, one has to wonder – is the company superior to the content of the play, even when the writer is the acclaimed Neil Simon? Your humble scribe subscribes to that very thought. While it was abundantly clear the opening night audience was thrilled by the presentation, it still remains a puzzling theatrical presentation.
So what is God’s Favorite all about?
At first glance it hardly looks like a piece destined to be known for producing endless chuckles and knee-slapping guffaws. Loosely based on the Biblical book of Job – it openly asks the question, why do the righteous suffer?
Simon’s play is set in a Long Island mansion of the well-to-do Benjamin family. The main characters are the God-fearing father loving Joe, his loving wife Rose, prodigal son David (calling on yet another Biblical theme), two odd twins Ben and Sarah, along with the dutiful and exceptionally loyal maid Mady and butler Morris.
One night a loose-limbed, oddly dressed bespectacledstranger Sidney Lipton (with a big G on his sweatshirt) – claiming to be a messenger from God – stumbles onto the property.  Dancing about the house in a delightfully frantic manner, he repeatedly tempts a dumbstruck Joe to renounce God. He repeatedly refuses, finding himself visited in the most horrific manner by all afflictions imaginable. He stands firm and the messenger has to admit defeat.
In the Biblical narrative, Job – the unyielding main of faith – enjoys vast wealth, a loving wife and healthy children. All is well until Satan confronts the Almighty and the test begins to determine his faith with the loss of his wealth, culminating in a wide range of agonizing ailments.
Biblical followers know the outcome so, without hesitation of delivering one of those dreaded spoiler alerts, let’s cut to the quick – you also know how God’s Favorite turns out.
So what you have in the Simon version, in the guise of a rather grim comedy, is a theological test of unwavering faith. Not exactly the mind of material one would expect from a playwright like Simon. What doesn’t really help are great helpings of rather obvious and often quite silly dialogue, punctuated by the sprinkling of numerous pop culture references, much like movies of today that rely on spot product placements.
A prime example is the devil’s physical appearance being compared to Robert Redford – ‘the good looking one from Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’. Cute but hardly profound. Act One, which is by any theatrical standards simply too long, also suffers from repetitive phrases and gags that, while superficially funny, often seem awkward and ill-placed.
Yet to be fair to Simon, it is a well-known fact that he, even reportedly admitted by the playwright, wrote God’s Favorite after the sudden death of his wife 41-year-old dancer Joan Baim in 1973. It’s a tragedy that clearly explains his mental state at the time and the probable reason for this uncustomary bout of theatrical moralizing.
The good news is that the cast, in expected ITOPA fashion, is more than up to the task of handling such a difficult production. Stuart Crew, in his riches to rags role as the flabbergasted Joe is superb, delivering a performance that shows moments of desperation, confusion and bewilderment at these catastrophic turn of events.
Tayler Claessens demonstrates a wonderful set of theatrical skills as the oft-times drunken and strangely philosophical David, the prodigal son that tests both the patience of his loving  family and, dare we suggest this, the Almighty One himself. A top-notch comic actor, he adds genuine color and a much welcomed sense of physicality (a touch of Dick Van Dyke) to his role.
The entire company – including the whole Benjamin clan and the long-suffering maid and butler – puts in a solid night, tackling the often strange antics and interactions earnestly and with unfaltering gusto.
The highlight of the production has to be Joel Catlack’s wacky and slam-bam, take-no-prisoners outing as the down-on-his-luck Sydney Lipton, the most unorthodox characterization of a messenger from God that has ever graced the theatre. He is an outrageously funny stage actor who knows no bounds when it comes to throwing himself – quite literally – into a role.
Larmour, a highly capable production specialist in a variety of other off-stage areas, handles the pacing in a proficient manner, even though the aforementioned first act is simply too long.
It simply boils down to a couple of questions? Do you find family homes burnt to the ground and an onslaught of piles, uncontrollable itchy skin diseases, gonorrhea and a host of other painful, excruciating diseases funny and the basis for a comic theological test?
If so, then God’s Favorite should be your cup of tea and ITOPA, as always, certainly gives the play that old college try.
A lingering question mark for Neil Simon but hats off to ITOPA.

3 ½ out of 5 stars

This review also appeared online at Donald's Dish

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