God’s Favorite by Neil Simon
Performance length: about 2 hours with one intermission
SET DESIGN: Medium
COSTUME DESIGN: Easy
CAST POTENTIAL: Neil Simon’s plays almost guarantee a wide variety of broad, colorful and witty characters; each with an opportunity to steal a scene or two. This play is no exception.
CROWD REACTION: Based on the Job parable in the Old Testament, this play presents an old story in a bright and funny package. It’s filled with Simon’s iconic brand of humor, sure to bring the audience (and laughs) rolling.
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SUMMARY: Joe Benjamin has it all: an adoring (if not all that bright) family, a luxurious home on the North Shore of Long Island, and a box factory that earns him millions. He credits all he has to his love for God. However, when Sidney Lipton (a messenger from God of the Jack Lemmon/ Woody Allen variety) appears, he informs Joe that God and Satan have made a wager, whereby God informs Satan that no amount of suffering would ever lead Joe Benjamin to renounce his faith.
Incredulous, Joe insists that he would never renounce God, no matter the circumstance. But this bold proclamation leads to a series of unfortunate events that involve the utter destruction of his factory, the collapse of his home, and the disintegration of his health. Not only does this test Joe’s resolve for God, but his family’s resolve for Joe.
CASTING CONSIDERATIONS: The cast is relatively small, consisting of eight parts (4M, 4W). Most of the dialogue is dominated by Joe and Sidney, but Simon has included enough moments to make the minor characters an integral part of the script. There are two black servants, Mady and Morris, but why these characters have to be portrayed by black actors is not evident. In fact, casting these characters as black could be perceived as insensitive, at best. This is not a period piece, nor does it need to be produced as one.
SCENIC CONSIDERATIONS: The scenic elements are perhaps the biggest challenge facing a cast and crew because of the transformation that happens halfway through the text. In the opening scene, Simon describes a fabulous house featuring large oak doors, paintings, leather-bound books, and ornate furniture. But in Act Two, the house is a dilapidated skeleton, “burnt to the ground.” The characters clothes are “tattered and singed,” and Joe suddenly looks old and aged.
The audience needs to see this dramatic contrast to understand the extent of Joe’s suffering. Simon even titles Act Two as “the Holocaust after.” Without a doubt, creating a set as beautiful and refined in the first act, and equally as ruined in the second, is a difficult task that requires a large budget or a creative and economical set designer.
PERSONAL REFLECTIONS: Woody Allen said, via the character Lester in Crimes and Misdemeanors, “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it is not funny.” Simon illustrates the careful balance between comedy and tragedy through this play, where he has turned one of the most troubling and depressing books of the Old Testament into a modern, comedic romp. His script is laced with irony, where misery elicits laughs, not sympathy. And though Joe suffers tremendously, his trials pale in comparison to his biblical counterpart.
So, while this play is rich with philosophical and religious potential, Simon does not reach deep; he simply uses the myth of Job as a framework for slapstick. He bends, but only so much. Therefore, it is up to the director to bend things even more, to bend the play until the audience is ready to believe Joe may give up, to bend until Joe’s faith just about breaks.
For another classic play based on Job, consider the Pulitzer Prize winning J.B. written in verse by Archibald MacLeish. Performing these plays in repertory may be a fascinating exploration is style and tone.