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FRIDAY, Oct. 4 — “God’s Favorite” is full of calamity, sickness, destruction and torture. However, that didn’t stop the audience at the play’s opening night in St. Johns from laughing at the misfortunes, again and again.
The 1974 Neil Simon play, was written in response to the death of Simon’s wife to cancer. “God’s Favorite” is based on the story of Job being tested — a tough starting point for a rib-tickling comedy.
Like the Biblical tale, the play shows the anguish of a father who has his faith and loyalty to God challenged. Bob Murrell is Joe Benjamin, the wealthy-yet-pious dad who loses his riches and good health to see if he will reject the God he reveres. Murrell’s animation and slapstick reflections of misery help make daddy’s suffering more amusing.
Through cartoonish deliveries, the Benjamin kids — played by Tyler Frease as Ben, Monica Holland as Sarah, and Patrick Monroe as David— help keep the real messages about worshiping a god, who allows torment and grief, less bothersome. The trio’s unserious behaviors allow the serious messages in “God’s Favorite,” to be taken less seriously.
Who squeezes the most laughs out of what should be a depressing play is M.D. Nelson as Sidney Lipton. As a pedestrian messenger for superior authorities, Nelson is Groucho Marx on espresso mixed with Red Bull. His comical, wise guy rantings while whirling around the Wilson Center Auditorium stage are the closest to anything rib-tickling.
The impressive set Nelson helped build with six others provides the perfect playground for his antics. Classy furnishings, decorated walls, a set of French doors and a fireplace that pops open, are above what might be expected for a small-town show.
Although there are clever set alterations later in the play to reflect a disastrous fire, what remains is remarkably free from any blackening or evidence of being burnt.
“God’s Favorite” is Homegrown Productions' first performance with sophisticated, high-tech, LED lighting. John Gross no longer manipulates a 55-year-old system for a stage that is 95 years old. Without levers and transformers, he kept the actors brightly lit and simulated lightning storms masterfully.
Darryl Schmitz, who also plays the butler, Morris, creates the realistic booms and crashes to accompany those storms as sound engineer. To handle all the authentic noises throughout the play, Nelson would take over when Schmitz was on stage.
Director Tom Webb made the best of a script that starts slowly and ends without much of a climax. Some updating of “God’s Favorite’s” movie references were a fun touch. Webb’s experience as a teacher probably gave him the patience to work with a cast comprising mixed experience and abilities. With help from Assistant Director Susan DeRosa, the duo managed to keep the two-hour-with-intermission, “God’s Favorite” from being god-awful.
Fri., Oct.4 - Sat., Oct. 5
$10 students and seniors
$15 general admission
Wilson Center Auditorium
101 W. Cass St., St. Johns
Tickets are available at the door or online at facebook.com/Homegrown-Productions