Even now in his old age, Neil Simon is still America’s favorite comic playwright. We know many of his characters, like Felix and Oscar, as if they were family members.
Audience members who think Simon is so familiar that he can be taken for granted are probably unfamiliar with God’s Favorite (1974), one of his least-known and rarely performed works. The gags and one-liners still fly about in abundance during this Central New York Playhouse production, but at its core God’s Favorite is struggling with some of the deepest pain that can be known.
As with so many Simon plays, there’s a biographical cue that sets the action in motion. The playwright’s beloved wife of 19 years, Joan, had just died a painful death from cancer the year before he started writing. He was grieving to exhaustion and sought refuge in his wife’s work, so he arrived at the unlikely proposition of writing a comic version of The Book of Job, with real suffering addressed by real laughter. Paddy Chayevsky had penned a comparable biblical work, Gideon (1971), with a similar structure, but no one had tried anything like it before, certainly not as commercial entertainment.
Simon does not show his hand immediately. From the first scene this looks like a domestic comedy about successful but unhappy cardboard box manufacturer Joe Benjamin (Edward Mastin), who lives in a luxurious Long Island mansion. A noise at the front door, implying an unwanted intruder, introduces the house. Joe’s loopy twin children, Ben (Conlon Doran) and Sarah (Sarah Anson), misinterpret the evidence and, worse, Sarah seems almost disappointed the break-in was not of a rapist. Two loyal servants, Mady (Betsy York) and Morris (Phil Brady), also misread the episode, while Joe’s bumptious wife Rose (an excellent Michaela Oney) comprehends nothing. With her earplugs still lodged in place, Rose understands none of Joe’s words, and she won’t take the plugs out.
Most disappointing of all is Joe’s wastrel son David (Jesse Orton), who stumbles in drunk. Strangely, David is wearing a green topper and formal jacket, as if he might have been at a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Even though Joe addresses him as a “bum,” Joe clearly had high hopes for David. Before Joe can finish, David is asleep, closing off his father’s words.
The would-be intruder, Sydney Lipton (Lanny Freshman), is a fast-talking salesman who might well be hustling insurance or investment schemes. Instead, he is God’s messenger, as he certifies when he opens his raincoat to reveal a golden G on his sweater. Lipton gives away the title, “God’s favorite,” or chosen by God, designating Job of the Old Testament book, thus Joe equals Job. Joe’s faith is put to the test, as he begins a series of failures and torments, starting with the offstage burning of Joe’s factory (“No insurance: I trusted in God!”) and rising through pains, itches and hemorrhoids.
Lipton is one of veteran comic actor Freshman’s best outings. Director Heather Roach and costumer Capri Merrifield have put Freshman in glasses and a high-crowned plaid chapeau that make him look like late film director Billy Wilder, an artist of dark ironic vision (Sunset Boulevard). Although blessed with many of the play’s best lines, Lipton is too dangerous to become ingratiating. Oddly, none of his dialogue has been updated from the opening production so that he still grousing about paying $3.50 to see the Jack Nicholson movie Chinatown.
Carrying the most weight in God’s Favorite is Edward Mastin, a much-admired supporting player in his first big lead. Director Roach and Mastin have decided that the recitation of Joe’s disappointments should not be undercut with laughter. In an unexpected turn Joe does not generate much comedy until things get running rough, his face is bloody, and he limps from having a nail through his foot. More importantly, Mastin makes Joe’s steadfastness look reasonable as the price he pays keeps getting higher. Rose bellows to him: “You still love God? Why didn’t you just get a mistress like other men?”
Dustin Czarny’s set, assisted by Morgan O’Donnell Curry, contributes mightily to the action in the second act. Although less than posh, its mobility at Lipton’s last entrance would do Buster Keaton proud.
God’s Favorite continues with 8 p.m. performances on Thursday, March 19, through Saturday, March 21, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, March 22, at the Central New York Playhouse, Shoppingtown Mall, 3649 Erie Blvd. E. Call 885-8960.