Thursday, February 20, 2014

Making God Laugh

My review of Redwood Curtain's current show, Making God Laugh, is in this week's North Coast Papa Murphy's Pizza Journal.  I wanted to get beyond the review headlines here, but first let's review the review, or actually, repeat it:

The structure of Making God Laugh, now onstage at Redwood Curtain in Eureka, is straightforward. A nuclear family of five is presented in four scenes: Thanksgiving 1980, Christmas 1990, New Year’s Eve becoming New Year’s 2000, and Easter 2010. It’s like Same Time Next Year, the family edition.

 With a crucifix on the wall, the Ten Commandments above the door and a statue of the Virgin Mary, it’s a very Catholic household. This adds some edge to the saying that one of the characters quotes, the title references, and the play illustrates: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” Variously attributed to Woody Allen and “Old Proverb,” it’s quoted in a number of sermons on the Internet counseling humility rather than questioning divine benevolence.

 In 1980 the three grown children have left the nest and are returning for the holiday. Maddie (Sasha Shay) is the misunderstood daughter, an aspiring actor continually belittled by her mother for not being thin enough to capture a husband. Richard (Rigel Schmitt) is the troubled son, the former high school football star, now tending bar, bathed in Brut and hair spray. Thomas (Luke Sikora) is the good son, studying for the priesthood but not taking himself too seriously.

 Ruthie (Teresa L. Desch) is the mother who wants everything about the holiday to be perfect (as she tells us repeatedly), and pushes her children to be her idea of perfect. Bill (Randy Wayne) is the quiet and affectionate dad, the peacemaker.

 Written by regional theatre journeyman playwright and actor Sean Grennan, the play often seems assembled from a “heartwarming comedy” kit, with predictable character twists and payoffs to every repeated theme. Both despite and because of that, it is frequently funny and delivers emotional moments, especially in the final scene. The humor is mostly gentle, especially in resurrecting illusions of the past (remember Y2K?) Though this comedy skates quickly over the surface of many contemporary issues, some profound and even tragic implications may linger. Still, if this were dinner theatre you probably wouldn’t need dessert.

 Desch and Wayne are solid and subtle as the parents, though I felt I’d seen them play these characters before. Redwood Curtain first-timers Schmitt, Shay and Sikora are appealing and mostly convincing, and they all handled their set-piece moments well. It’s efficiently directed by Kristen Mack, with a handsome set by Daniel C. Nyiri, lighting by Liz Uhazy, costumes by Marissa Menezes, sound by Mack and Tim Ward. Making God Laugh is onstage at Redwood Curtain weekends through March 8.

 Okay.  What more is there to say?  (And as odd as it seems to have to say this while reviewing a play, the following contains "spoilers.")

I saw this at first preview and the acting was a bit tentative.  I couldn't tell if some of the repetitions were in the play or blown lines.  However I extrapolated the next more polished performance.  Usually I go to the second preview of an RC show, but this time it was February 14, and nobody wants to see a critic on Valentines Day.

I hope I communicated my twin feelings about the play--that it is without much in the way of surprise or depth of treatment, yet it is admirable in what it does.  The structure is simple but beyond the surface, it's also pretty clever.

In this production at least, it's not really a realistic play.  Although it takes place over 30 years, only the five principals ever appear on stage.  By the end, two of the children have life partners, but they're not included.  No friends of anyone ever appear for the holidays.  Even more telling, the house--that is, the set--never changes in those 30 years.  The living room looks exactly the same, right down to the same books on the coffee table.  Symbolic certainly, but realistic, not very.

An additional tip-off might be the set's double front door.  It looks like the entrance to a church.  I don't think I've ever seen anything like that as the front door of a suburban house, at least before they started being the size of small cathedrals.

There's also the family itself.  The program calls this "a suburban living room in the United States."  So is this Every Family?  No, it's a Catholic family, and from repeated references to da Bears, it's probably in a Chicago suburb.  There are highly Catholic suburbs of Chicago, but they are also ethnically specific. That ethnicity makes a difference in how Catholicism is expressed.  But the ethnic dimension is ignored.

What about class? We learn that Bill (the father) works for the Post Office.  Without much more direct evidence, this seems a lower middle class household that depends on one steady salary and a probably decent union pension. (This as well as other features makes this seem more of a 1950s family, though the ages of the children suggest the oldest was born in the late 50s.)  But money is never discussed except in terms of one of the son's comically bad investments (which allow the audience to laugh because they know how those investments must have turned out.)

Even the device of a different holiday every ten years is artificial, sort of.  Why would they choose Thanksgiving one year, and Christmas another?  Maybe everybody is close enough geographically in 1980 to be there for both, and later it's the Christmas biggie that draws them?

New Years 2000 is inspired however, and not necessarily a reach.  The audience can laugh at the wonder over 8-track tapes, the choice of Enron stock over Google, etc.  But  many of us must know someone who was in panic over Y2K.  At this point it may be impolite to remind them.  This scene contributes some physical comedy as well, though it seemed a bit over the top in preview.  Maybe a bigger and more laughing audience helps it.

The play deals overtly and specifically with time, but at least in this production, only the mother and father visibly age.  Again, a kind of abstraction.

As for the plot, doesn't everybody guess from the beginning that the priest is not going to be a priest by the end, and that somebody is going to come out ? The only thing in this play I hadn't seen in another play is the portrayal of "happy dementia," although I read an account of it--by a playwright actually (Alan Bennett, in his autobiographical book about his mother,  A Life Like Other People's.)

 The mother's sweet present-centeredness in this scene is the device by which all the plot points and themes are resolved "in a sleep," though the appropriate speech from The Tempest is maybe too much.   Sasha Shay was so present and expressive in her role throughout,  but I'm not sure the direction served her well in this recitation.  It looked too contrived.

This scene takes place on Easter, the Catholic feast of the Resurrection, but it's not really Easter, so it's a false resurrection?  In any case it's spring, the season of hope, yet it's the ending.  If the playwright meant all that, this is possibly more profound than it seems.

So on the surface, the play is a long illustration of the quote, "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," and of this insubstantial pageant (though not really the seven ages.)  But within it, never really explored, are potential tragedies. Though I was never quite convinced that the mother was really a lesbian and simply repressed it, this could be a tragic fate.  The daughter's failure to have an acting career, one son's near-continuous failures in life.  The particular balances involved in figuring out whether these constitute tragic fates or just the vagaries of life are outside this play, but the fact that people may think about them, according to some, would make this a successful night of theatre.

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