The oft-quoted notion that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel doesn't quite do justice to the flag-brandishing demon in Sam Shepard's "The God of Hell." Indeed the play, which opened Wednesday in a disappointingly off-key production at the Geffen Playhouse, goes so far as to suggest that trumpeted national loyalty may be next to ungodliness.
The scariest thing about Welch, the bureaucrat from some mysterious agency who invades the home of an unsuspecting Wisconsin dairy farmer and his wife, is his aggressive demand for displays of true-blooded Americanism. Toting around a briefcase filled with cookies decorated with red, white and blue icing, he barges into Frank and Emma's Norman Rockwell-esque living room barely able to contain his outrage at the barren flagpole creaking in their front yard.
The poor guy would no doubt weep buckets if he knew that the proposed constitutional amendment banning the desecration of Old Glory fell one vote shy of passing the Senate this week. As far as Welch is concerned, all the naive numskulls who don't realize the homeland must be both promoted and preemptively defended deserve to have their liberties brutally stripped from them.
There you have the premise of Shepard's pointed political farce, an Orwellian nightmare served up as surrealistic black comedy. The plot, dashed off with a comic-strip's credibility, revolves around Haynes, a researcher who has been hiding out in Frank and Emma's basement from the Big Brother-like power that Welch couldn't be prouder to represent.
Haynes, it should be noted, has an unfortunate habit of emitting a blue radioactive charge, which needless to say gives those on the hunt for him an advantage. He tries to pretend to his hosts that it's just a bad case of static electricity, though it seems to have something to do with an environmental disaster in Colorado involving leakage of plutonium (named after the god from hell) and a fire that burned the Earth for 30 days.
Welch says what happened in Rocky Buttes is no big deal. Of course, one of his ulterior motives is to get both Haynes and Frank shipped back there -- that is once he has sufficiently reprogrammed them to march in lock-step to his star-spangled plan.
"The God of Hell" made its debut in New York just before the 2004 presidential election, and many wondered whether this topical but otherwise imaginatively thin offering by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Buried Child" and countless other genre-busting dramatic works would have the same interest after that polarized vote took place.
But the challenge of "The God of Hell" isn't so much its relevance, which seems to have grown in the intervening two years. It's trying to figure out how to portray the malevolent high jinks convincingly onstage.
This would be a tricky proposition for even the most experienced of hands, and actor Jason Alexander, making his directorial debut here, has a devil of a time sorting out the nature of Shepard's free-form comedy.
Suffice it to say, a sitcom this isn't. In fact, it's not even very funny, though Alexander tries to milk the gags for all they're worth. For example, every time Frank mentions his beloved heifers, the sound of them braying in the distance is heard -- a routine that needs a laugh track to work, particularly after the third or fourth time.
Sarah Knowlton plays Emma with an accent thicker than Frances McDormand's in "Fargo," a choice that seems strange next to Bill Fagerbakke's much more relaxed approach to Frank's Midwestern manner. Worse, the running joke of Emma's ridiculously rounded vowels only makes her seem dimwitted, though as the lone holdout against Welch's creepy, can-do brand of totalitarianism, she deserves more respect.
The point isn't that Emma and Frank are dolts but that they thought they could exist in their frozen Wisconsin idyll beyond the clutches of history and politics.
Shepard, always eager to detonate the myth of the American dream, hints at the boredom and violence that's already present in their marriage before this neo-fascist plague found its way to their unlocked door. Emma over-waters her drooping houseplants for want of something to do, her husband knocks over a TV set when he's upset with her, and the only regular outside contact either of them has is with salesmen who drive by peddling animal hormones and carcinogenic fertilizers.
In a telling exchange, Frank asks Haynes if the crisis he's found himself in "is a world situation or something personal." His answer -- "What's the difference?"-- is a lesson that Frank and Emma will have to learn the hard way.
Curtis Armstrong, a diminutive actor with a salty presence, makes Haynes seem more of a kook than a sympathetic victim. He's like a caged animal caught up in his own survival. It's not a wrongheaded interpretation, but it has the effect of making his Abu Ghraib-like torture less emotionally devastating. Like a cartoon character, he doesn't seem to be subject to real flesh and blood violence.
Bryan Cranston's Welch is part politician, part game show host, part diabolical clown. It's a showy, crowd-pleasing performance, delivered with a bobbling head on a Slinky spine, but amusing as it can be, it never quite makes the threat posed by his character real.
When "The God of Hell" was first done in New York, it came across as dramatically slight but theatrically potent, a rambunctious critique of post-9/11 America that was urgently rendered in neon colors.
Shepard's vision, sketchy as it can be, holds more truth than easy laughs. By forcing the humor, the Geffen's production never ensnares the actual horror.
'The God of Hell'
Where: The Geffen Playhouse,
10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays
Ends: July 30
Price: $35 to $69
Contact: (310) 208-5454 or www.GeffenPlayhouse.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Written by Sam Shepard. Directed by Jason Alexander. Sets by John Iacovelli. Costumes by Christina Haatainen Jones. Lighting and Projections by Jason H. Thompson. Sound by Jon Gottlieb. Production stage manager Mary Michele Miner.