Friday, February 12, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Oh. My. God.


Lent is underway and it has brought no less than God Almighty to the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles for an understandably limited engagement. To be more precise, God has adopted the body of Will & Grace star Sean Hayes temporarily to present ten new commandments via humorist David Javerbaum's An Act of God. The play is having its west coast premiere now through March 13th following a hugely successful run last year in New York, where God assumed the personage of The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons.

Presidential candidate Ted Cruz, who receives a rebuke here from the big guy, and other conservative (especially anti-gay) Christians are likely to be the only potential audience members who would be offended by this generally good natured romp. The only brief but genuinely uncomfortable moment opening night — which was, appropriately enough, Ash Wednesday — occurred when God professed his admiration of the classic musical Cabaret and took issue with Jews and others who question why God allowed the Holocaust to happen. "No Holocaust, no Cabaret," Hayes deadpanned to both gasps and stunned silence.

Javerbaum (who won an impressive 13 Emmys as head writer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) lobs grenades at expected targets such as right-wing politicians, biblical fundamentalists and Hollywood celebs, the latter of whom God/Hayes referred to as "my true chosen people" and were dutifully in abundance among the opening night audience. What surprised and impressed me though is how genuinely respectful An Act of God is toward legitimate (i.e. open minded) theological study as well as the towering scriptural duo of Abraham and Jesus. Hayes brings an unexpected sincerity and gravitas to God's genuine admiration of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, in obedience to God's test of faith. Likewise, Javerbaum and Hayes treat Jesus seriously in his desire to sacrifice himself on behalf of humankind, a notion that Jesus' father as depicted here didn't take kindly to initially.

Most of God's new ten commandments are humorous upon their revelation Jeopardy-style on a giant overhead tablet, but they end up making more than a little serious sense. Who can contest "Though shalt not kill others in my name" in our jihad-riddled world, or "Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate"? (Yes, God as played by the openly gay Hayes is decidedly pro-LGBT.) The most controversial of God's new commandments may be "Thou shalt not have a personal relationship with me," especially as he confesses he doesn't really like human beings with the exception of the aforementioned Abraham. Before he returns to Heaven, however, God can't help but lovingly profess humankind to be his greatest creation and affirm our ability to guide our own destiny.

Hayes is naturally delightful in the role, even if some of his initial schtick referencing Jack from Will & Grace is predictable and kind of dated. He hit his stride about 15 minutes in once he settled into the character of God, omnipotence, omniscience and all. David Josefsberg as the archangel Michael, humanity's defender, and James Gleason as the archangel Gabriel are the only other characters in what is essentially a 90-minute monologue. The best thing about Tony Award winner Joe Mantello's direction is that it lets Hayes do his thing. Most impressive is Scott Pask's scenic design, an apparent mashup of gleaming heavenly architecture and Hayes' own living room, frequently augmented by spectacular lighting and video effects. If you're in LA or San Francisco, where An Act of God will be moving next, don't miss this divine theatrical opportunity.

For Catholics and many other Christians, Lent is our annual, deadly-serious time to strive to atone for our sins. Most do so by "giving up" some kind of vice, at least temporarily, or sacrificing an everyday indulgence such as candy, coffee or alcohol. The woefully misguided priests featured in the new movie The Club (opening today at Landmark's Nuart Theatre in LA), on the other hand, have committed severe crimes for which they are offering seemingly endless penance.

Fathers Vidal, Ortega, Silva and Ramirez live together in a house of prayer on a secluded hill overlooking the Chilean coast. They are not allowed to be apart from one another for long periods or to venture into town unaccompanied except in the early morning or evening when the streets are largely deserted. The quartet is supervised by kindly but no-nonsense Sister Monica.

Their seemingly peaceful idyll is interrupted one day by a new arrival, Fr. Matias, who ends up killing himself once a former victim discovers him there. The Vatican subsequently sends a psychologist/spiritual director by the name of Fr. Garcia to assess the priests' mental condition as well as their moral development since being removed from ministry for a variety of offenses. Suffice to say things don't go quite the way Fr. Garcia or the Vatican intended.

The Club, directed and co-written by Pablo Larrain (who previously helmed 2012's acclaimed No), was one of this year's Golden Globe nominees for Best Foreign Language Film and won the 2015 Silver Bear Grand Jury Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. It is a potent, topical movie, well acted and beautifully shot by Sergio Armstrong, that also makes a great companion piece to current Academy Award nominee Spotlight, about Boston's history of clerical sexual abuse. But The Club is even more uncomfortable to watch as its religious characters increasingly prove themselves unable to be liberated from a vicious circle of deception and, therefore, beyond redemption. God help them and the real-life ministers like them.

Reverend's Ratings:
An Act of God: B+
The Club: B-

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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