Review By Ron Fassler
One of my favorite scenes (among the many in Woody Allen’s 1986 screenplay for Hannah and Her Sisters), is a monologue enacted by Max Von Sydow, in which he reports to his girlfriend about an evening spent home alone in front of the television: “The worst are the fundamentalist preachers. Third-rate con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak for Jesus and to please send in money. Money, money, money! If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name… he’d never stop throwing up.”
In God Shows Up, playwright Peter Filichia comes close to that premise (and promise) in his new play, currently running at the Actors Temple on West 47th Street. Only instead of Jesus returning, it’s our Heavenly Father (and his), God himself. And the setting the Almighty chooses to make his appearance is on a televangelist’s broadcast, exactly like the one described by Von Sydow. When the action starts and we first meet Dr. Thomas Isaac Rehan (played with believable conviction by Christopher Sutton), his preaching is instantly recognizable to anyone who has channel surfed since cable television exploded back in the 1980s. He is one of those types who can’t get through more than three minutes of speaking to his worldwide congregation on the air without a commercial pleading for contributions and offering stuff to sell, like “Jesus Loves You” flip-flops. All to fill the coffers of his church—and of course—line his own pockets. It reeks to high heaven, but not to those who “believe.”
Filichia uses this dramatic situation as a way to get in sharply observed comedic digs at the hypocrisy of these religious swindlers. And though that is pretty much akin to shooting fish in a barrel, the lines come fast and furious, resulting in an impressive ratio of precise aim to targets hit. When we first meet this rather avuncular God (appropriately world-weary yet possessing an instinct for the jugular in Lou Liberatore’s portrayal), it doesn’t take long before a hidden agenda is revealed. And when that comes, Filichia does something very interesting, which is to then split the role of God between two actors, one male and one female (LeeAnne Hutchison bringing some impressive snark to the proceedings). This serves to lift the play’s final third in a more sinister and ambitious way. Filichia might even have gone further with this shrewd idea, as the male/female aspect of a vengeful God is fertile territory.
Throughout this bare-bones production, well directed by Christopher Scott, Filichia’s points are made succinctly and entertainingly. And if at first there’s a good deal of God as stand-up comic, akin to “Did you ever notice that…” spoken in a familiar Jerry Seinfeld-like manner, the jokiness eventually eases off, allowing for more bite (and even some danger) to bubble to the surface. Less Mel Brooks’s 2,000-Year-Old Man character, with his off-beat observations, and more sinister and, yes devilish (if I can use the term). I believe the darker elements of the play are still there to be mined and explored, without sacrificing any of the play’s delicious humor. In fact, it might even work to enhance it.
Minor quibbles, when the major takeaway is that this is a theatre piece with not only clever intent and genuine wit, but the smarts to back it up. God Shows Up, folks… let the games begin!
God Shows Up – The Actors’ Temple, 339 West 47th Street, New York, NY 10036, playing only three performances a week: Saturday at 8:00 pm, Sunday at 3:00 pm and Monday at 7:00 pm. www.GodShowsUpPlay.com.