A messenger from God arrives at the Long Island mansion of multimillionaire business tycoon Joe Benjamin and informs him, “If you cherish your children and wife, the house that shelters you, the clothes that warm you and the flesh that covers you, if pain, calamity and disaster do not in any manner whatsoever appeal to you, then renounce your God!” Joe refuses, and is soon afflicted by a series of calamities that would test the patience of Job. Does this sound like a Neil Simon comedy to you?

It is indeed, though one you may never have heard of.

God’s Favorite, a lost 1974 gem by the master of the one-liner, has been rescued from relative obscurity by Actors Co-op, and guess what? It’s every bit as hilarious as the better known Simon comedy classics which came before (The Odd Couple, The Sunshine Boys) and after (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Rumors), but with a Biblical tie-in that makes it a perfect choice for Hollywood’s Christian-based professional theater company.

Under Greg Zerkle’s spot-on direction, and featuring a bunch of bravura performances, God’s Favorite sparks laughs aplenty, a tear or two, and ample food for discussion at Sundays’ talk-back performances. Though the comedy drags a bit in the second half of Act One, and the Co-op production’s 1970s sitcom-with-commercials concept seems more tacked-on than inspired, God’s Favorite provides more laughs per minute than just about other show in town.

Zerkle and his cast bring Joe and the madcap Benjamins to outrageously funny life from the play’s uproarious first scene on. There’s Joe’s jewelry-bedecked wife Rose (Rebecca Hayes), his drunken bum of a son David (Jeff Guilfoyle), and his lame-brained blond twins Ben (Adam Dlugolecki) and Sarah (Rhonda Kohl). There are also a pair of very sharp African American servants (Kimi Walker as Maddy and Montelle Harvey as Morris). And there’s Joe himself (Steve Gustafson), a man who grew up with nothing (“My mother, my father, and eleven kids in one and a half rooms. We had two beds and a cot, you had to take a number off the wall to go to sleep.”), worked for pennies for the worst business in town (“The Schreiber Corrugated Box Company. No matter how you packed it, the minute you shipped it, it fell apart.”), bought the business from his boss, and ended up wealthy because—as his mother always used to tell him—“It’s God’s will.” Joe is generous to a fault (“I give half of what I have every year to charity, and the next year I make twice as much.”), and not surprisingly, feels truly blessed.

Then, one night, a stranger named Sidney Lipton (Greg Baldwin) breaks into Joe’s mansion with a message from The Man Upstairs. It seems that Satan has bet Jehovah that “there’s not one man in the entire universe—regardless of race, religion, Polish, whatever—who would not renounce God once the Devil put enough heat on,” to which The Almighty has responded in no uncertain terms that yes, indeed, there is that man, Joe Benjamin, God’s favorite, in fact God’s “absolute favorite.”

Following the example of his Biblical predecessor, Joe refuses to utter the required renunciation, and before you can dial 911, his “hundred percent fireproof” factory has burned down, just the beginning of a series of catastrophes which befall poor Joe Benjamin.

As funny as God’s Favorite reads on the printed page, it’s when seeing it performed by a group of actors as sensational as the ones assembled at the Co-op that Simon’s comedy truly takes flight.

Gustafson does tour de force work as Joe, a role which demands comedic gifts, dramatic chops, and oodles of stamina, qualities which the frequent Co-op star possesses in abundance. Alternately hilarious, courageous, harried, tragic, and heroic, Gustafson is out-and-out brilliant here.

Baldwin’s wacky manic whirlwind of a performance as Sydney is another one to cheer, as is Hayes’ outrageously funny and utterly endearing work as Rose, a performance that transcends caricature, with Hayes’ accent alone (classic Noo Yawk with a speech impediment) nearly worth the price of admission. Guilfoyle gives David sweetness, goofiness, and considerable depth in addition to the requisite inebriation. “Twins” Dlugolecki and Kohl do dimwitted to perfection, and in perfect sync. Walker and Harvey are wonderful as Mady and Morris, the play’s two wisest characters, Mady’s West Indian accent a nice added plus.

The very broad, farcical dimensions director Zerkle has his cast give to their roles are absolutely right for God’s Favorite. On the other hand, the decision to set the show “on the sound stage of the Co-operative Broadcasting System” seems an unnecessary one. 1970s TV commercials for products mentioned in Simon’s script provide nostalgic laughs when shown on the two TV monitors which “broadcast” the play from start to finish, but God’s Favorite is not so era-specific as to necessitate a particular period, especially considering how relevant its themes are in 2010 recession-plagued America.

Still, the 1970s design is a splendidly-executed one. The Co-op’s black box space has been reconfigured from its usual in-the-round setup to a V-shaped seating area, allowing scenic designer Mark Svastics to create an elegant proscenium style set design with in-the-round intimacy. Lighting designer Lisa D. Katz does her accustomed fine work here, Vicki Conrad’s costumes capture the 1970s is all their polyester awfulness, and Fritz Davis’s AV/sound design is just right for the production’s TV studio/sitcom setting. Julie M. Smith’s well-chosen props complete the period design package. God’s Favorite is produced by Gina D’Acciaro. Nicholas Acciani is stage manager.

A broad slapstick farce that achieves real depth in its final minutes, God’s Favorite may not end up Audiences’ Favorite Neil Simon comedy, but the laughter it provokes is guaranteed to lighten whatever burden playgoers bring into the theater with them and leave them with a smile (and perhaps a bit of extra hope) in their hearts.

Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
October 23, 2010
Photos: Greg Bell

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