Before attending St. Ambrose University's production of God's Favorite, I had neither seen nor read Neil Simon's 1974 comedy - based on the Biblical book of Job - in which a wealthy, devout husband and father is tempted into renouncing God, refuses to do so, and subsequently suffers the loss of home, health, and family. I now consider the 34 years between the play's debut and Saturday's presentation the happiest years of my life, as I never had to endure what might be the single most irritating and unfunny comedy I've ever sat through.
Let me be clear: I'm referring to the play itself, not St. Ambrose's production of it. The show (which closed its run on February 17) was actually quite well-done; director Michael P. Kennedy's offering gave student actors the chance to experiment with broad physical and verbal slapstick, which they did skillfully, and the evening featured more of the extraordinarily detailed scenic design we've come to expect from Kristofer Eitrheim. (Audience members gasped at the reveal to Act II's debris-filled playing area, and were right to do so.)
Yet in theatre, there's nothing quite so awful as watching talented participants debase themselves in the service of wretched material, and despite the considerable appeal of the actors and the design, there wasn't a single scene in God's Favorite that I wasn't aching to see end.
Granted, this is how I usually feel at one of Simon's works, but God's Favorite seems to me even worse than the rest of his typically plasticized fare. For sheer laziness, this piece would be tough to rival. Simon dutifully rehashes the story of Job - told here as the story of Joe, played by a hard-working Matt Mercer - but lends it no insight or intellect; he merely recasts Job, his family and friends, and his chief tormentor as wisecracking stooges, excises the tale's more troubling elements (painful boils, funny; dead children, not so funny), and calls it a day.
This wouldn't be so intolerable, though, if God's Favorite weren't also so damned dawdling. But, man, does it take a long time for nothing much to happen. The opening scene, in which Joe's panicked family reacts to a possible intruder, goes on for several minutes, and all Simon can think for his characters to do is race about the stage like ninnies and incessantly repeat their braying directives. (The rather unseemly "close your robe" routine gets an especially noxious workout.) Yet every scene here seems to last far longer than necessary - Simon doesn't impart information in any one sentence when it could be delivered in three - and you sense that's because the playwright is so bewitched by his own cleverness that he can't bear to part with a single line; the sequences between Joe and the "angelic" Sidney (Seth Kaltwasser, doing a Woody Allen) are nightmarishly over-written, and Act I's most credible moment finds Joe reciting a lengthy monologue about God's will to his son - who promptly falls asleep.
That monologue, by the way, is the reason so many of us hate Neil Simon. Our most common complaint is that he doesn't create characters who are in any way believable or empathetic - who are anything besides robotic joke machines spitting out punchline after punchline. Joe's recitation could be our Exhibit A. When the man describes his childhood poverty, he adds, "The holes in my socks were so big, you could put them on from either end." When he explains their cramped living quarters, he adds, "You had to take a number off the wall to go to sleep." When he mentions his father's death, he adds, "He died at the age of 32 from an acute attack of everything." Much as we'd love them to, Simon's characters simply can't stop cracking wise, and as the gags - almost none of them amusing to begin with - continue to accumulate, the relentlessness of the shtick grows maddeningly oppressive. This isn't playwriting. It's filling in the blanks for TV's Match Game.
Given all this, I'm not surprised so much as astonished that St. Ambrose's production - entered in this year's Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (!) - didn't completely tank. The actors (especially Mercer, Kaltwasser, Katie McCormack, Jessica Sheridan [nee Stratton], and the fiercely committed Ryan Westwood) hit their marks and tried to make something witty out of the playwright's insufferable dialogue, and Kennedy's staging was topnotch. In truth, my only caveat with the presentation was with its being only half updated from its 1974 setting to the present; gags referencing uppers, the movie version of The Great Gatsby, and "the good-looking one from Butch Cassidy" sat uncomfortably beside jokes about Tom and Katie, Deal or No Deal, and Starbucks. (Simon certainly doesn't make it easy, but if you're going to modernize him, you've got to go all the way.)
Beyond that, the only thing really wrong with God's Favorite was the decision to stage the work in the first place, although, to be fair, the show did get me thinking about religion a bit - at least based on how many times I muttered "Jesus Christ ... " under my breath.