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A CurtainUp Review

God of Hell (a comedy in 3 scenes)

Do you know what Plutonium is named after, Frank?. . .Pluto-- the God of Hell. . .Do you know how long it remains radioactive and biologically dangerous once it's released into the atmosphere?. . .Five hundred thousand years --- Haynes
That's a long time ---Frank
It is. The most carcinogenic substance known to man. It causes mutations in the genes of the reproductive cells. . .Major mutations. A kind of random compulsory genetic engineering that goes on and on and on ---Haynes
Randy Quaid & J. Smith-Cameron
Randy Quaid & J. Smith-Cameron (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Ominous hints about plutonium tests likely to sicken the human and animal species for centuries. . .  a man who sends off blue waves of static shocks when you so much as shake his hand. . .  a slick government agent who invades your quiet home like a malignant snake.

Doesn't sound like a play you'd subtitle a comedy does it? But while this comedy in 3 scenes is more surreal, scary thriller à la Rod Serling than the ha-ha-ha Mario Cantone, Whoopi Goldberg and Billy Crystal shows with which Broadway is currently regaling escape minded audiences, the tag line fits, at least early on. The tag relates more to Balzac's La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy) as described by Friedrich Engel: ". . . Balzac was politically a legitimist; his great work is a constant elegy on the irreparable decay of good society. . ." That's not to imply that this 80-minute play can be compared to Balzac's epic and brilliantly satirical work. For that matter, written as it was in the heat of political passion, it's not polished enough to be put in a class with Shepard's own best work like Buried Child True West and Fool for Love

God of Hell was written last summer and described by the author as "a takeoff on Republican facism." Shepard wanted to have it e seen before people pulled the voting lever on November 2nd. However, a new play, no matter how timely or how well-known the name above the title, usually doesn't make it from page to stage that fast and so Shepard opted to have New School University produce it for a limited run.

This small scale production of Mr. Shepard's wakeup call about the dangers posed by another four years with the present administration did begin performances a few days before the election though most of its run post-dates it. But no matter. The administration the playwright forewarns against is still in charge leaving it up to plays like this to persuade people to be more active citizens in order to prevent the play's dire predictions about America as Orwell's worst nightmare from coming to pass.

No doubt most of the people rushing to nab a ticket before the November 28th closing are likely to share Shepard's pessimism and disgust. Therefore, like many political polemics, this is a case of preaching to the choir. It's thus older, well-aged political satires about newly relevant past events that are likely to draw audiences from a wider political spectrum. (An example is the brilliant current adaptation of The Good Soldier Svejk written in 1923 -- also reviewed this week-- Svejk).

The stray Republicans and pro-administration domestic and foreign policy folks who may wander into the 120-seat theater are unlikely to give The God of Hell a standing ovation -- still, even they might swallow hard when Welch tells Emma "You didn't think you were going to get a free ride on the back of democracy forever, did you?" Whatever one's political leanings, there's sure to be agreement on one point -- the production couldn't have a better cast.

Randy Quaid and J. Smith-Cameron embody the ordinariness of a Wisconsin farm couple. Quaid is terrific as Frank, a good-natured galoot, a man of few words who probably loves his heifers as much as his wife. Smith-Cameron's Emma convincingly embodies a woman who's never lived anywhere but the shabby farmhouse in which the drama unfolds. She is the American Heartland, or what's left of it. She deals with winter's fierce cold and isolation (and her never explained childlessness?) by lavishing much attention on the plants that dominate her home. Quaid's transformation from cattleman to blue-suited automaton is appallingly riveting.

Tim Roth, who's no stranger to villain roles (Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs) , is spine-chillingly spooky as the play's "Republican facist" -- a government official named Welch whose knock on the door brings an end to Emma and Frank's uneventful existence. Welch's name may be a sly inside joke since Welch is the name of the man who started the right wing John Birch Society. As the fourth character, a fugitive from a vaguely identified government agency, probably some sort of nuclear laboratory, Frank Wood is an eerie new version of Orwell's ill-fated Winston in 1984. In fact, the scene when things turn from ominous to horrendous, and Welch's aggressiveness turns into psychotic cruelty, are remarkably reminiscent of Orwell's futuristic novel.

Director Lou Jacob can be credited for keeping the tension high even though the end is all too predicable. The stagecraft too is fine, with all the elements in place for a typically messy Shepard finale. Instead of the refrigerator's contents spilled all over the floor the final image is a triple metaphor for the author's concerns: American flags that have come to represent unquestioning loyalty to the powers that be; wilted plants symbolizing damaging environmental practices and paper money to evoke our bankrupt economic policies.

As I walked out of last Sunday's matinee performance it was still daylight and I could see the Hudson River at the end of the street. The lovely river view and late afternoon sun replaced the tension generated by the grim view of the American landscape just witnessed and prompted a twinge of optimism. After all, with enough artists like Sam Shepard to employ their talents to nudge complacent Americans into being more actively involved in seeing to it that the Welches of this world can't grab more and more power, the Armageddon depicted in God of Hell will remain a cautionary tale.

The God of Hell
Written by Sam Shepard
Directed by Lou Jacob
Cast:Randy Quaid (Frank), Tim Roth (Welch), J. Smith-Cameron (Emma) and Frank Wood (Haynes)
Set Design: David Korins
Costume Design: Ilona Somogyi
Lighting Design: David Lander
Original Music & Sound Design: Lindsay Jones
Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth
Musicians (recorded at Q Studios, Chicago): Dennis Shennan, hurdy-gurdy; Mary Alsopp & Dan Trueman, hardanger fiddle; Andre Pluess, harmonium & Piano; Lindsay Jones,, acoustic bass
Running time: 1 hour & 17 mins, without intermission
Actors Studio Drama School Theatre at Westbeth, 151 Bank Street, 212 279-4200
From 10/29/04 to 11/28/04; opening 11/16/04.
Monday, Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 3pm and 7pm.
Tickets are $60 with a limited number of $15 student tickets available (with student identification) at the Ticket Central box office, 416 West 42 Street.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 11/13/04 press performance
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