SALT LAKE CITY — God’s Favorite, written by Neil Simon and produced by Wasatch Theatre Company was difficult to sit through, not just because of poor acting and directing problems, but major script issues as well.
The story is about a man named Joe who is living the Bible story of Job in modern day. He is visited by a messenger who tells him God and the Devil had a bet that he wouldn’t renounce God, no matter the trial. Once the message was delivered, terrible things begin to happen to Joe, and he loses his business, his house is severely damaged by fire, and he gets all sorts of sicknesses. His family sit around and watch, though his son David is affected with blindness, and because Joe gets mad at God for this, he and his son are suddenly restored to full health.
Neil Simon has always been a favorite of mine, but unfortunately God’s Favorite was an exception. It was as full of his quick with and comedy as any if his others, but the jokes were colored by a grave lack of ingenuity. There were lots of overly ridiculous lines that were so far fetched from reality that they lost power, though the actors and director were also partly at fault. The show also had plenty of witless crass remarks about deity that in many cases left me wondering if I was supposed to find it funny. Yet, there were other moments where the line was well written and performed that I naturally burst out laughing, like when Joe asks Sydney if he’s ever actually talked to God in person and Sydney replies, “God blessed me.” Joe: “He blessed you?” Sydney: “Yes! I sneezed, and he blessed me, what do you what from me!?”
Despite the feeble and somewhat crass humor throughout the show, there were a few moments that worked well. One moment was with the oldest son, David (played by Gordon Dunn) and his interaction with his father Joe (played by Andrew Maizner). David reached a point where he admitted that he couldn’t live with his father’s money and was ashamed of it. That was something real that society is dealing with: children who can’t appreciate the hard work of the parents and will even go so far as to condemn it. I’m grateful Simon put something useful like that in the script. Another insightful moment was when Joe’s wife, Rose (played by Sallie Cooper), made the decision to leave Joe and get some food for her family. Rose was a useless and helpless comedic relief up to that point, so to see her taking charge was a great relief.
There wasn’t much else in God’s Favorite that was thought provoking and I longed for more, especially in a straight play at such a nice theater, and mostly because it was Neil Simon. The ending was so disappointing to me I couldn’t even roll my eyes. “You couldn’t come up with anything better, Simon?” I asked. So, here comes the spoiler: the ending had Sydney returning and targeting David as God’s new favorite to be tested, which pretty much negates the entire show previously, implying that God didn’t care about Joe at all. Instead, God was just playing a mean game, and Joe was an idiot for playing along. This plot twist also implies that God saw David as so stupid that he would play the game again after he had been a part of the trials of the last one.
Maizner, was very clear and concise in his performance. I thought Simon could have added more dynamic to his character, but as it was, Maizner pulled off the intense anger that kept fueling his monologues, as well as the pious devotion that jumped in from time to time. As he was playing a character based on the biblical Job, there were a few lines I thought didn’t quite work for his character, like when he angrily yells at David, “I wish I had all my money back so I could cut you off without a cent!” I also thought the anger was too much and he could have used other options just as effectively. Yet, Joe was written so flatly that there was no change or growth, and I didn’t get that wonderful feeling of a greater understanding from him or the other characters for most of the play. Also, I didn’t understand why Simon would write Joe as a smart man with such a strong devotion to God and have him marry someone who was clearly a pain and obnoxious and belittling his belief. And then Simon wrote Joe’s children as stupid and naive. It was hard to believe Joe would even like a family like that, let alone allow it to happen in the first place.
Eric Geels played Sydney was a very enjoyable actor who portrayed his character so well that I could accept the strange reality if his job. Geels’s use of movement and facial expressions were so funny, like after he has appreciated Joe’s elaborately fine house, especially a certain chair. Sydney later is offered a seat in the chair, and as Geels sits he instantly melts into bliss and nearly faints from joy, which was most entertaining. The only setback for Geels was also that Simon wrote Sydney as such a static character. It would have been great to see him change and grow.
The beginning surprised me, because I sat in such a nice theater and the set looked immaculately built, painted, and designed, by the artistic Kit Anderton. Despite all this, the actors who came on stage playing Sarah and Ben were performing way over the top, which robbed their characters of any real emotion. It was very painful for me to feel treated like a 4-year-old who would enjoy seeing adults indicating emotion to me as if I couldn’t handle the true emotions. Sarah (played by Anne-Marie Leishman) was convincing during the “dumb blonde” parts of her role. However, she had some very potentially funny farcical lines at the beginning that Leishman couldn’t seem to keep a straight face while saying, which was distracting when she was supposed to be were expressing fear. Ben (played by Tristan B. Johnson), was about the same, though sometimes I could see his emotion being real which was a nice change. But still these two played their roles in such an extreme manner that the performances usually felt annoying and pointless. Cooper’s entrance at near the beginning helped me to see that the acting wasn’t all bad, as well as Dunn coming in later, which brought the show back down to the level of reality. Dunn was a very convincing drunk and had some of the wittiest lines in the show which he delivered masterfully.
Granted, the director could certainly be at fault here. The director, David Hanson, had some great blocking put in and kept the timing well, so that the show felt short (despite its 2-hour length). One choice I enjoyed was when Geels was calling God on the phone, and he turned from Maizner and blocked the phone from view for a little privacy. Yet, here were also a directorial choices, like when Geels is checking the health of Maizner, that I thought were strange and didn’t make sense for the moment. As far as the acting style goes, I think some of God’s Favorite could be improved by reining in the insincerity acting of Johnson and Leishman. Yet, even Morris and Mady (played by Kaltin Kirby and Natalie Keezer) could use some tune-ups, with some coaching on their accents as I heard (from both of them) British (both), Irish (both), Country (Kirby), and Brooklyn (Keezer) accents throughout the night.
Though I didn’t enjoy the show, I must admit that even a bad Neil Simon is better than many other bad plays. My favorite line, because I have dealt with doctors like this, was when Maizner is complaining about his physical ailments to Geels and wants to phone a doctor to which Geels replies, “Don’t call for a doctor. They can’t help you and they’ll cost a fortune!” Flashes of brilliance still show through this script, though many audience members won’t feel that it is worth sitting through the rest of the play.