By Ashley Ramsey
Wasatch Theatre Company is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a landmark season, and when I heard Neil Simon’s God’s Favorite was included in the line-up, I was beyond excited. God’s Favorite is a clever re-imagining of the biblical story of Job, where Job is now Joe (Andrew Maizner), the scene is set in Long Island, and the 10 children are now a more common 3. Joe is a successful business owner who spent his young life in the poorest neighborhood of New York. Raised by a single mother, she instilled in her children the wisdom that whatever happens, it’s God’s will for them. This becomes the mantra that the ever-faithful Joe carries with him his entire life. After a mysterious visit from the even more mysterious Sydney Lipton (Eric Geels), Sydney tells Joe that he has been chosen by God to be tested by Satan because God knows Joe would never abandon him. Joe’s life is quickly turned upside down by family, health, and financial issues. It all can end if he will just denounce God, but will he?
Wasatch Theatre Company continually draws some of the best of Utah’s talent to its productions and God’s Favorite is no exception. Each actor gives a realness and fullness to their role that comes together to create some beautiful ensemble moments. Maizner, at first, feels slightly distant as his character and it took me a moment to connect to him. But after a few moments of watching his performance, I realized what a brilliant acting choice Maizner was making in the distance and stubbornness of Joe. As the play continues, you watch that stubbornness become what it actually is: Faithfulness. It creates a truly believable performance of a man who would continually withstand trial after trial in the name of his God. Maizner is also to be commended on his control of Simon’s extremely long and rambling monologues bestowed on the character.
David (Gordon Dunn), Joe’s wayward son, brings a great counter-balance to Maizner’s performance. Dunn’s use of sarcasm while also being footloose and fancy free steps forward immediately as the cool and likable oldest brother. Dunn’s presence on stage is powerful and yet giving to his co-actors on stage. The rest of Joe’s family is expertly played with the eccentric and hysterical Rose (Sallie Cooper), the delightfully air-headed Sarah (Anne-Marie Leishman), and the adorably kind-hearted Ben (Tristan B. Johnson).
The stand out performance of the show is Geels’ Sydney Lipton. Making his debut with Wasatch in this role, Geels will quickly find himself a favorite with the audiences here in Salt Lake. The role of Sydney requires the actor to strike a balance of comedy and drama as God’s messenger. Sydney serves as the physical manifestation for the audience’s frustration over God’s treatment of Joe, and Geels owns that in this role. He is both quirky and lovable and yet there are often times you want to strangle him (don’t shoot the messenger, right?) Geels’ delivery of almost tongue twister philosophical rants are clear, easily understood, and driven with purpose. His performance feels so real and effortless, and yet, you know he is leaving everything he has on that stage. Geels’ performance is one of the best I have seen this year in Salt Lake City.
Set Designer, Kit Anderton, created a two story set which is stunning and beautifully captures the feel of the millionaire family. The pastel colors of the furniture and decor balanced with the darkness of the expensive paintings to create a nice yin and yang to the set. Absolutely stunning and breathtaking is Michael Nielsen’s costume design. Mr. Nielsen, I am sure Hollywood misses you, but we are sure glad you are here. The costuming in this show features incredible, vintage 70’s design but it serves as such a strength in telling more of the individual stories of each character. The majority of the script is carried in the characters of Joe, Sydney and David, but because of the costuming I grasped a greater understanding of who the more minor characters are and felt a much stronger connection to them.
Director David Hanson makes incredible use of the black box stage in the blocking and staging of the show. The physicality and movement of the actors helps to drive the story forward at a smooth and steady pace, accelerating in the moments of need to the delightful comedic chaos that ensues. Hanson handles the rise and fall of the script in bringing out in his actors the right emotions at the right time. Oftentimes, the power of one sentence or one word changed everything on stage, and that only comes under the watchful and careful guidance of a skilled director.
The story of Job has always been a hard one for me to swallow. Raised in religion, it never quite sat with me well the idea of this bet or gamble with the life of God’s favorite child. I remember telling my mom that I didn’t ever want to be liked that much by God because the story almost scared me. However, my unease is easily set aside with this brilliant show. Neil Simon’s script takes the absurdity of the story and gives it a life through comedy. Somehow, that allows me to let some of that weirdness in the story go. I think anytime we are allowed to laugh at the weird and absurd when we normally can’t (like in a church building), there is a moment that is cathartic. This is certainly true in this production. God’s Favorite is both a comedy and a commentary on the human experience and, most importantly, on finding strength in ourselves.
Wasatch Theatre Company presents God’s Favorite by Neil Simon
Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, Studio Theatre
Sept. 22–October 7 at 8 pm
Sept. 21, Oct. 1, Oct. 8 at 2 pm
God’s favorite is recommended for ages 13 and older not because of anything inappropriate but younger audiences may have trouble following the story.