If politics and religion are among the most combustible topics, then “God Help Us!” must be dynamite.
Billed as “a political comedy for our times,” the 90-minute stage show centers on two opposite-leaning pundits who are transported to purgatory by the Supreme Being himself for the purpose of debating today’s political and social issues.
The play was written by Samuel Warren Joseph and Phil Proctor concurrent with the Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debates of summer 2016. It premiered in Chicago in August 2018.
Having tapped Ed Asner for a 2001 staged reading of his play “Moral Imperative,” Joseph conceived of “God Help Us!” with Asner in the title role. Proctor, who is also an actor and voice actor, had also done several live audio shows with Asner.
As soon as Asner heard about the role, he gleefully accepted the part sight unseen.
Next weekend will be the first time “God Help Us!” comes to Orange County, with three special benefit performances at the Robert S. Wentz Theatre in Newport Beach (courtesy of the Newport Harbor High School’s drama department). Asner’s daughter Liza Asner is the show’s producer.
The story pits liberal Larry (played by Stewart J. Zully) against conservative Randi (Pamela Guest), two politically opposite media pundits who were a couple in college.
Largely because they were unable to disagree without being disagreeable, they split up, so God brings them together in limbo, interrogating them on a wide variety of domestic and world topics — a well as personal matters.
Whichever of them he finds more persuasive, he informs them, will receive his “mighty thumb on the scale” in their favor.
The playwrights’ God is indeed Asner-like, a cantankerous, sarcastic figure openly offended by what American political leaders have done to the U.S. The play imbues him with deity-like wisdom, qualities that emerge as God offers his take on the Bible and on the origins of the universe and humankind.
Asner said this God’s tactics are designed to see if a compromise can be worked out. He said he has been “amazed at how open people at opposite political poles” are in response to the play.
Mitch Levine, the show’s director, attributes that fact to the way the play “exposes both the foibles and the potential of humanity.”
He also said that both political camps will feel equally celebrated and castigated by Asner’s God, calling the character “an equal opportunity proclaimer and challenger whose acerbic approach to circumstances really links to the idea that we should all be doing better.”
An avowed Socialist, the outspoken Asner said he finds it “unbelievable how many people share Trump’s beliefs,” yet the play is meant to show how “ridiculous” both supporters and opponents of Trump can be.
In the process, “God Help Us!” makes the same appeal to everyone regardless of their political persuasion: that if we’re to survive, we must listen to each other.
Eric Marchese is a contributor to Times Community News.
IF YOU GO
What: “God Help Us!”
Where: Robert S. Wentz Theater, Newport Harbor High School, 600 Irvine Ave., Newport Beach.
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 22, 2 and 7 p.m. Feb. 23