A friend of mine once made the mistake of performing a scene from a Neil Simon play in an acting class. "Stop!" the teacher cried, clutching his head. His objection was not to the acting (although hindsight says it was probably bad). Rather, the teacher complained, Simon's plays lacked character development, plot motivation or meaning of any kind. They were commercial.
At his worst, Neil Simon is the sitcom writer of American theatre. This, of course, explains why he is so phenomenally successful. He knows how to crank out one-liners. God's Favorite, Arizona Jewish Theatre Company's current production, is chock-full of them. Whether this justifies buying a ticket is a matter of taste.
One possible take: After opening night at Herberger Theater Center, I heard a satisfied patron remark, "That was a good show." Her comment suggests a kinder interpretation of Neil Simon's limitations. He writes shows, not plays. His goal is sheer entertainment, which, after all, is not a crime.
So AJTC runs with what Simon gives it. The company's energetic production features a handsome set, skillful effects and an Olympic-size performance by Lisa Fineberg Malone.
The curtain rises as a messenger shows up in the middle of the night at the home of Joe Benjamin, an insanely wealthy businessman and faithful believer who humbly attributes the course of his life to God's will. The messenger is a woman from Queens who delivers for God "important documents only--no packages." She sets off a burglar alarm, hides in a panic and finally delivers an important notice. Joe must renounce God or bad things will happen.
Joe stands firm. Bad things happen.
Turns out, God bet Satan that Joe will never renounce his faith, no matter how extreme the circumstances. God's Favorite is based on the Book of Job, one of the least funny books in the Bible, or maybe the funniest if you read it as a fable about a nice guy having a really bad day. Why do human beings suffer? It's a tough question. It goes hand in hand with the other big one, Why do we exist?
The playwright, of course, steers clear of the kind of troubling theological implications that Archibald MacLeish explored in J.B., his treatment of the Book of Job. Unlike that poet and thinker, Neil Simon is not interested in narrative complexity or philosophical insight. He sets to work squeezing jokes from the wacky messenger and the Benjamin family--dotty wife, dingbat twins, two loyal servants and an eldest son who staggers in from the cold, drunk.
The opening sequence reveals the playwright at his most mechanical. The alarm is a tedious excuse to get the characters onstage for laughs of the following caliber:
Joe: Thank God your mother can't see you, she's got earplugs on.
Son: How does that affect the eyes, Dad?
Joe: Don't you talk back to me. . . . I thought it was a burglar. Your brother thought it was a lunatic. Your sister was expecting a rapist.
Son: Sorry, Sarah, what time were you expecting him?
Yuk, yuk. Typical Simon. Even God suffers, ultimately coming across as a very fickle character indeed. He makes egomaniacal bets, inflicts pointless suffering and hires flakes from Queens.
Luckily, Peter J. Hill's knowing direction, aided by judicious cuts in the script, kicks the play into gear midway through. The lines are mindless, but the escalation of pace intensifies the comedy.
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As the messenger, Lisa Fineberg Malone helps to keep the yuks coming fast and furious. (She won a Zony for her recent work in The Kathy & Mo Show at Actors Theatre of Phoenix.) At first, her lumpy overcoat, big glasses and incessant, wheezy laugh recalled a creepy resemblance to Pat (Julia Sweeney's "Is it a he? Is it a she?" character on Saturday Night Live). But Malone brazens it out with the strength of her showmanship. Her timing is smart, and her Queens accent sounds effortless. Although Malone's role was written for a man, the casting works.
Ben Tyler, another familiar face in local theatre, makes a fine straight man as Joe. He copes with his idiotic family with dignity and strength. Ron Hunting contributes some nice moments as David, the black sheep. Radford Mallon's performance is also worthy of note. He has a relatively small part as one of the twins, but he understands the key to playing a character with an egregious lack of brains. Although the character is dumber than dirt, Mallon doesn't play dumb. He plays sincere, which makes the dumb things his character says even funnier.
At the end of Act I, God's Favorite hits its peak. God is challenged to prove he exists, and produces some well-timed lightning bolts. Paul Black's effective lighting punctuates the mayhem. Shelves collapse and drapes fall in Gregory Jaye's clever set.
Joe Benjamin, God's favorite, is struck with carpal tunnel syndrome, neuralgia, bursitis and hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoid jokes are as old as God, but Neil Simon is shameless. It's a credit to this production that most of the audience laughed, anyway.