CNY Playhouse’s ‘God’s Favorite’ a divine comedy
Like the hero in the biblical tale, the company’s well-crafted reworking of the ‘Book of Job’ passes every test
With friends like Joe Benjamin’s God, who needs enemies? That’s the question Neil Simon appears to raise in his quick-witted comedy God’s Favorite, a modern day setting of the Book of Job that opened on Broadway in 1974.
Simon doesn’t share any philosophical musings or other pearls of wisdom in this quasi-farcical comedy; just laughs. And the handsomely staged CNY Playhouse production, which opened Friday, provides lots of ’em.
The lengthy and gruesome ordeal forced upon Benjamin (Edward Mastin) — a God-fearing family man smitten in the manner of Job — unfolds with the snappy one-liners and borderline kitsch we expect of the author of such works as The Sunshine Boys, The Odd Couple, California Suite and Laughter on the 23rd Floor. Only here the audience is asked to laugh at another human being’s misfortunes.
No luck? No problem. Laughter is the best medicine, Simon tells us in God’s Favorite. And he provides us with enough “medicine” to split a gut.
In this, as in all Simon comedies, timing is everything: The snap, crackle and pop of the one-liners hinge upon effective, razor-sharp delivery of the dialogue. And the success of the current production, directed by Heather Roach, is due largely to the comedic timing of its characters.
The lion’s share of the humor in God’s Favorite falls upon the character Sydney Lipton, played in masterful fashion by Lanny Freshman, a natural comedian. As God’s unlikely messenger, Lipton appears to be a product of the New York brand of Jewish humor that would serve Simon well two decades later in Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
Lipton is given the best one-liners in the show. But it wasn’t Lipton’s lines that got the laughs Friday evening, but rather Freshman’s delivery of them. This is a role that requires delicate balancing: Lean too far one way and the kitsch is over-the-top, cornball or just plain obnoxious; lean too far the other way and the humor loses the rhythm necessary to sustain the farce.
Freshman finds just the right balance here, crafting a loveable character who endears himself to the audience almost immediately. He forges a comic Jewish character that lies somewhere between the quick-tongued Jackie Mason and the amusingly philosophical George Burns. That places him in pretty good company. In a strong cast with no weak links, Freshman all but steals the show.
As the hapless character chosen by God to prove his unshakable loyalty, Edward Mastin forges a resolute character who steadfastly refuses to renounce God, even in the face of unspeakable hardships and tribulations.
Mastin appeared curiously detached early on — looking rather casual when faced with evidence of a prowler lurking outside his posh Long Island mansion, and displaying little emotion throughout his lengthy Act One monologue as he recounts his troubled childhood to his oldest son, David. But by Scene Two Mastin shifted into high gear, building a steady crescendo of physical and emotional anguish in-step with the increasingly tortuous maladies being inflicted upon him.
I especially enjoyed Mastin’s “scratching scene,” with gestures that took on near-acrobatic proportions as his hands rubbed across every inch of his body. By Act Two Mastin looked so pitiful in heavily bandaged hands and feet while crying out in anguish through a mouth seemingly devoid of teeth, I expect he could have walked into the U.S. Federal Building in downtown Syracuse and been granted immediate Social Security disability.
Jesse Orton, as Benjamin’s prodigal son David, had an uphill battle trying to gain any measure of sympathy from the audience. Orton is a fine actor, as could be seen in his performance as Willy Loman’s son Biff in the company’s acclaimed production last year of Death of a Salesman. But Orton’s character, as crafted by Simon, remains a no-good dipsomaniac, seemingly bereft of any redeeming quality.
As Benjamin’s wife Rose, Michaela Oney manages to bring a good measure of humor to her character as the irascible, easily flustered matron of the family. Rose represents the ostentatious side of success, less worried about family dynamics than her jewelry. (One is left to conclude that the nature of David’s rebellion and rejection of the family values is due largely to her.) Oney’s big scene comes in Act Two, as she importunes her husband to renounce God so the family may return to its former standard of living.
You couldn’t ask for a better pair supporting efforts from Sarah Anson and Conlon Doran, as the Benjamin’s twin teenage children Sarah and Ben, respectively. Anson and Doran appear entirely comfortable on stage and stay thoroughly in character whether speaking, looking around for prowlers or simply sitting on the sofa shivering in the unheated living room. And they made us believe they are, indeed, teenagers. Betsy York and Phil Brady, as the Benjamins’ servants Mady and Morris, made the most of their modest roles.
Dustin Czarny’s impressive set reveals the handsomely fashioned interior of a mansion, adorned with a sofa and chair, paintings, antiques and a bar. This interior will morph into a burned out building by the second act — accomplished by yanking off the facade during the intermission to reveal what’s beneath: the charred remnants of a once extravagant domicile now in a state of gross disrepair. Credit the CNY Playhouse production crew for a smooth and well-timed transition.
Credit, too, the entire CNY Playhouse operation for yet another successful effort that continues to exceed expectations.
What: God’s Favorite by Neil Simon, directed by Heather Roach
Who: Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY
Performance reviewed: Friday, Mar. 13, 2015 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through Mar. 28
Ticket information: Call 315-885-8960 or http://www.cnyplayhouse.com
Length: About two and one-half hours, including intermission
Ticket prices: $17 to $20; dinner and show $34.95 (Mar. 21 only)
Family guide: Suitable for all ages