Simon's take on Job requires no suffering


Job may have suffered far more than his share of pain and loss in the Bible's most eloquent ode to patience and unshakable faith, but he's certainly not suffering from neglect.

The Mitchell Gallery on the campus of St. John's College is showing about 50 works of art inspired by his story in a fascinating exhibit called The Sweet Uses of Adversity: Images of the Biblical Job.

And a few short blocks away, at the Colonial Players' Theater off State Circle in Annapolis, the Capital City's premier theatrical ensemble is offering God's Favorite, playwright Neil Simon's humorous take on the Job story.

Job, a la Simon, is Joe Benjamin, a God-loving, God-fearing multimillionaire living in opulent splendor on Long Island with his shallow, self-centered wife, Rose, and their three children. They've attained material comfort, but not domestic bliss, as their oldest son, David, is pursuing a slothful existence fueled by alcohol.

Like his biblical role model, Joe quickly becomes a blameless victim of forces beyond his control.

God's messenger appears as a fast-talking messenger from Queens who informs Joe that his "Boss" and the Evil One have made a wager that will test poor Joe to the max. Renounce God, Joe is told, or the vicissitudes of life will come a' callin'.

And call they do, as Joe's body, soul, business and family life become the battleground for the mystery-laden struggle between good and evil.

God's Favorite isn't quite vintage Neil Simon, so if you're expecting endlessly hilarious banter of the Oscar-Felix variety, you may be a tad disappointed.

Still, Simon isn't Simon for nothing, especially with Rose, Joe's crassly materialistic wife on hand. "Why couldn't you just have a mistress like other men?" she kvetches as her husband professes his love for God.

"Look, Joe," she says beatifically when the maid and butler ask God's blessings on their tortured employer, "they're praying for you. And it's their day off."

Joe Del Balzo, who plays Joe, becomes better and better as the story progresses. Early on, I didn't get much sense of the character's inner life. (The repetitious touching of the hands to the forehead got in my way, I think.) But once disaster struck and the acting got more physical, I was with him every step of the way. Del Balzo confronts the afflictions with equal parts tragedy and comedy, and his final fist-shaking address to the Almighty is a thing of beauty.

Rose's shallow instincts are brought off with wonderful elan by Maud Gleason, who meets every comedic challenge without engendering a shred of affection for her God-awful character.

Sean Brown is delightful as Sidney Lipton, the earthy Jackson Heights messenger whose No. 1 client just happens to be You Know Who.

We're also treated to a high-energy ensemble thanks to Jon Christie, whose drunken kinesthetic response to his father's lecture is very funny, and Glenn Singer and Emily Dickens, who have a ball playing Benjamin children of oddly indeterminate age.

Two things about this production still have me scratching my head.

One is the set. There are innumerable references to Benjamin family affluence, yet nothing about Colonial's backdrop conveys wealth of any kind. Change the telephone and you could produce A Raisin in the Sun in the same living room.

The other strange feature is the opening montage, which has the family butler and maid offering a slow choreographed incantation while John Rutter's "23rd Psalm" plays in the background. Since neither character figures prominently in any of the metaphysical schtick that follows, the interlude seems random and very out of place.

The soundtrack, on the other hand, was hard not to like. Any musical accompaniment weird enough to juxtapose Rutter's eloquent choral fare with Walter Brennan reciting "I believe for every drop of rain that falls" is all right with me.

"God's Favorite" by Neil Simon plays Thursday through Sunday at Colonial Players through Sept. 28. Call 410-268- 7373 for ticket information.

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