GOD HELP US! Theater Review
America has never been as divided as it is today – except, perhaps, for that little kerfuffle called the Civil War and maybe that hawks-versus- doves dustup over the Vietnam War. Conflict makes for good drama – but it just may be that it makes for even better comedy. The whole Red State versus Blue State clash now dividing the USA between conservatives and liberals (and beyond), pro- and anti-Trumpers, etc., has been finding its way into our comedies, like sitcoms such as the Murphy Brown reboot and Roseanne-cum-The Connors. On the big screen, The Oath is a left-versus-right laugh riot.
Asner is a canny choice to portray the deity, and not solely because of his longevity, with his screen and stage credits seemingly stretching back to Genesis.
Now this red against the blue trend has found its way onto the stage. God Help Us! stars TV veteran extraordinaire Ed Asner, who has won more Prime Time Emmy awards than, well, god – as well as any male actor. Asner is a canny choice to portray the deity, and not solely because of his longevity, with his screen and stage credits seemingly stretching back to Genesis. In addition to being one of our greatest comic and dramatic actors – co-starring in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, the groundbreaking Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots TV mini-series, on the big screen in Elf and the animated feature Up and onstage in one- man shows including depicting President Roosevelt in FDR – Asner has long been noted as a man of conscience.
During the 1980s, when Asner was the Screen Actors Guild’s president – the same union Ronald Reagan once headed – Ed publicly clashed with Washington over its Central America policy. The dispute led to the cancellation of the hour-long series Asner was then starring in, Lou Grant, a dramatic and often topical spinoff of the newsroom character he’d portrayed opposite Mary Tyler Moore in their popular sitcom. The activist actor has since written 2017’s The Grouchy Historian, An Old-Time Lefty Defends Our Constitution Against Right-wing Hypocrites and Nut jobs and taken public stands in favor of many progressive causes, plus founded a foundation in 2018 for special needs children.
Speaking of “special needs children,” on the night I saw God Help Us! Asner was joined onstage by Amy Landecker and Rob Nagle portraying the characters Randi and Larry, who typify the kind of pundits proliferating on cable TV so-called “news” channels. Randi presents the conservative viewpoint, while Larry leans liberal, and they hold a debate rather immoderately moderated by the title character. To further complicate matters and heighten the comic possibilities in this Crossfire misfire, Randi and Larry are ex-lovers.
Let the sexual politics games begin!
The two commentators engage in the oral trench warfare that is all too familiar to viewers of MSNBC, CNN, Fox “News”, et al, wherein opinion-ating preempts actual on-the-scene reporting. The fact that the play’s righty and lefty talking heads used to be romantic partners underscores their contentiousness, as sloganeering and sparks fly over timely issues. As the inside-the-beltway debaters belt out their points of view, as God Asner is alternately cantankerous, curmudgeonly, bemused and befuddled. The king of the universe confesses that not even he can comprehend the Electoral College. Despite his cosmic wisdom, God admits to being “flummoxed” by this constitutional restraint on popular direct democracy.
God Help Us! ponders how wide contemporary America’s political divide has become. Are the feelings and attraction Randi and Larry once felt for one another – and that may still smolder beneath the surface – and their love of country able to transcend and span the gap between right and left?
This witty, of the moment play is co-written by Phil Proctor, an actor/ writer who shared three Grammy nominations with the much-vaunted Firesign Theatre, noted for its surreal brand of humor in recordings and on radio during the 1960s/1970s. Co-writer Samuel Warren Joseph is a screenwriter and playwright.
Amy Landecker is no stranger to political satire – she appeared in 2017’s darkly comic Beatriz at Dinner with Salma Hayek as a New Age activist type who considers killing John Lithgow’s haughty moneybags. Rob Nagle is a screen and stage stalwart who belongs to Antaeus Theatre Company and has trod the boards of many playhouses and acted in television programs such as Modern Family and Mad Men. Mitch Levine is a veteran theater and film director who also has a hand in music productions, including opera.
But as the titular, grouchy God, Ed Asner is the crown of creation for this funny play that somehow manages to make the contact sport of politics entertaining. Just as the lord does offstage, the ineffable Ed steals the show and is the best reason to see God Help Us! Even those among us who believe “religion is the opiate of the masses” are likely to enjoy this good fun show poking fun at the foibles of pundits and partners split by their world views. The creator may or may not exist, but thank god the divine Ed Asner does and is still tickling ribs – including the one Eve was made from (at least according to the Old Testament by you-know-who).
God Help Us! is being performed at various theaters throughout America, from Montana Actors Theatre in Havre, MT (with a different cast from the above) to Antaeus Theatre Company (where I saw God Help Us! with the aforementioned actors) in Glendale, L.A. County. As of this writing god only knows when and where this theatrical sermon on the mount will be mounted next, but theatergoers can get info here.
L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting John Steinbeck’s strike drama “In Dubious Battle” 7:00 p.m., Oct. 25 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019 as part of “Marx @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series” (https://www.gofundme.com/marx-200-the-marxist-movie-serie). The third edition of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book” co-authored by Rampell is now available at: https://mutualpublishing.com/product/the-hawaii-movie-and-television-book/ .