On Theater: 'God's Favorite,' but not this critic's

One can just imagine Neil Simon, 30 years ago, mulling over possible themes for his next Broadway play, his eyes fixing on a Bible and saying to himself, "Hey, how about the Book of Job? That would be a real knee-slapper."

Thus was begat "God's Favorite," the tale of a modern-day businessman whose faith in God is unshakable, so much so that the Almighty wagers Satan that the guy won't renounce him, no matter what misfortune is visited on him. Before God is through, slapping knees, or any other body part, is too painful to imagine.

The black comedy, now on stage at the Newport Theatre Arts Center, is rarely done today, possibly due to its inordinate set demands — a cozy mansion reduced to rubble at intermission. At NTAC, director Sharyn Case and set wizard Andrew Otero have combined to create an awe-inspiring experience — once the interminable first act is history.

It takes Simon nearly an hour to establish his premise, which could be comfortably shaved by a good 20 minutes without sacrificing the effect. Even the actors, otherwise quite accomplished, encounter problems of pace and timing as they wade through it.

As Joe Benjamin, the millionaire owner of a paper-box factory and the focus of heavenly wrath, Brian Page is strong and believable, particularly while depicting his physical anguish. Yet even he finds the setup process somewhat dicey, and the script's repetitiveness takes its toll on the overall effect.

The role of God's messenger, Sidney Lipton, is a guaranteed show-stealer — it was, after all, originated by uber-showman Charles Nelson Reilly. At NTAC, Vince Campbell draws a superb bead on this wordy but wise character — a local guy from Queens who does the Almighty's bidding for minimum wage. It's a credit to Campbell's expertise that his superfluous dialogue actually elevates the show.

Joe's long-suffering (quite literally) wife Rose is vividly portrayed with equal portions of affection and outrage by Tamra Talbert. Jennifer Whitney and Elizabeth Marsh function nicely as his teenage daughters, who parrot one another gleefully.

Alec Malczynski's role of Joe's sardonic wastrel son is written without a great deal of depth, but the actor manages to prevail. Alan Slabodkin and Randi Tahara are quite effective as the Benjamins' servants — Tahara's outbursts in the final scene are precious.

As for the scenic design, Otero has fashioned an impressive old-money mansion built to be destroyed. Lighting designer Mitch Atkins has contributed some fine effects and Tom Phillips' costumes are imaginatively accomplished, though one wonders about Malczynski's half-formal, half-casual outfit in the opening scene.

"God's Favorite" is hardly Neil Simon at his finest, but it's still an entertaining accomplishment at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

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UPCOMING — Orange Coast College theater arts instructor Beth Hansen will direct a musical theater workshop featuring Broadway favorites at 8 p.m. Nov. 30 in the college's Robert B. Moore Theatre. Tickets are on sale for $10 at the OCC bursar's office or online at occtickets.com.

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CALLBOARD — Golden West College will hold auditions at 7 p.m. Nov. 27 and 28 in the Mainstage Theater for its production of "Moby Dick," adapted from the Herman Melville novel by director Tom Amen, who recently spent a sabbatical retracing the story's route.

The production calls for 30 actors, all male, several of which will be doubled. All roles are open, except for that of Captain Ahab's wife, which is pre-cast. Production crew members also are needed. Performance dates are March 8-17. Contact the director at (714) 892-7711 or tamen@gwc.cccd.edu for more details.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

What: "God's Favorite:

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays until Dec. 16

Cost: $16

Information: (949) 631-0288 or http://www.ntaconline.com

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