First produced in 2000, Hugh Whitemore's "God Only Knows," is receiving its belated American premiere at Theatre 40.
Certainly, Whitemore is a well-established playwright ("Breaking the Code," "Pack of Lies.") So why did it take well over a decade for "God" to reach American shores?
After viewing the Theatre 40 production, the reason is obvious. Awkwardly straddling two genres, Whitemore's problematic play commences as a conspiracy whodunit, a la "The Da Vinci Code," before seguing into a rant reminiscent of Bill Maher at his most irreligious. Throughout, Whitemore seems more intent upon airing his own quarrels with organized religion than he is in constructing a cohesive drama.
The action takes place outside a Tuscany farmhouse – elaborately rendered in Jeff G. Rack's splendid set -- where two British couples are vacationing. Their quiet evening is disrupted by Humphrey Biddulph (Ron Bottitta), a bloodied and disoriented fellow Brit who has just crashed his car outside.
A Vatican scholar, Humphrey reluctantly reveals the reason for his agitation – a discovery that could cast the origins of Christianity into doubt. But is Humphrey really on the run from murderous modern-day Inquisitors, or is he in the grip of paranoid delusion?
It's easy to see why Derek Jacobi signed on for the play's West End run. The challenging role of Humphrey is largely a monologue spurred on by the other characters' leading – and rhetorical -- questions.
Bottitta occasionally trips over his own tongue, but those segues and stutters seem wholly organic to his authoritative performance. The cast also includes Chet Grissom, Pippa Hinchley, Wendy Radford and David Hunt Stafford. Certain performers seemed a bit overwhelmed by director David McClendon's hectically paced staging, as evidenced by line lapses on opening weekend. However, all are game supernumeraries supporting the thoroughly engaging Bottitta.
"God Only Knows," Theatre 40 in the Reuben Cordoba Theatre, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 20. $24-$26. (310) 364-0535. www.theatre40.org. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.