Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Oh My God by Anat Gov

Mike Burstyn - Photos by Michael Lamont

By Joe Straw 

“Lo he goeth by me, and I see him not:  he passeth on also, but I perceive him not.” – Job – The Book of Job, Chapter 9:11 – The Holy Bible – The King James Version.

West Coat Jewish Theatre presents an American Premiere starring Mike Burstyn in “O My God” by Anat Gov directed by Howard Teichman and produced by Howard Teichman & Jean Himmelstein through June 7th at the Pico Playhouse.

I am not familiar with Mike Burstyn, or his career, but there was a point in the show when he spoke emphatically as God. I heard his voice, I felt it in my chest cavity.  It was an inspired voice and one that nearly lifted me from my seat.  Instead I raised my eyes from my notepad and took note of the actor before me. Surely, I have missed something.  And I soon realized that I needed to catch up on my knowledge of  internationally acclaimed American/Israeli actors. – The Narrator.  

After a successful run of “The Whipping Man,” also directed by Howard Teichman at the Pico Playhouse, I really had to see what Mr. Teichman was doing next.  And because I had recently been inundated with “God” at the Unitarian Universalist Church (go figure) and other places, God kept appearing in disquieting peculiarity. I pondered the notion that someone, some being was trying to tell me something.

Lior (Joseph Rishik) sat and played his cello.  All decked out in drabbed New Balance sneakers, black socks, brown shorts, and a worn brown Hawaiian t-shirt. His face projected little emotion. The notes, the fingerings, were just there.  The vibrations from the music affected little of his soul, and his expressions were mechanical at best. On the chair, in his quaint living room, with an enormous blue sky projected through the window, Lior played on.  What was bothering him? Why wasn’t he connected to the passionate moments of the notes?

Ella (Maria Spassoff), Lior’s mother, throws off her enormous garden hat and attends to her son. She doesn’t ask, and doesn’t expect certain words to come from his lips.   At this moment Ella is beaten by the heat, complains little about the lack of rain, and life in general.    

And Lior says little – no, that’s not right – he says nothing, not even hello mom, mother, mama, nothing. He utters only guttural sounds, muttered squeaks and thrusts of vocal nothings.  Not being understood, he resorts to being an obstreperous child by throwing toys – too old for him to play with – and then throwing Orson Welles’s “The Third Man” poster to the floor, which Ella calmly repairs and hangs back on the wall.

Moments later, Ella gets a call from someone saying that he needs to see her right away so she hustles her son out of the room, with cello in hand, and prepares for the appointment. When there is a knock on the door, Ella opens it and finds no one. Strange.

Not thinking much of it, Ella returns to her desk.  Behind her, the door magically opens, and a figure in a dark hat and suit enters It is God (Mike Burstyn), an enigmatical tranquil being, with a problem.

Ella, the psychologist, is all business.  She methodically grabs her note pad and asks the gentleman to sit down before she starts the disquisition.

“Name?” – Ella

“You can call me, G.” – God

“What is your age?” – Ella

“Five thousands years old.” – God

“What do you do?” – Ella

“I’m an artist.” – God

“Father?” – Ella

“None.” – God

“Mother?” – Ella

“None.” – God

After more questions, Ella realizes this man knows everything about her and she suggests he might be a part of the Israel intelligent agency. But this man claims he is God.

“How long have you felt like this?” Ella

“I don’t feel like, I am.” – God

An exasperated Ella is not having any part of this discussion.  Slightly frightened, she steps back and says she has the name of a good psychiatrist.  She wants this man to leave her home right now.  

But God has a few tricks but his robes, um sleeves, and freezes Ella.

Lior comes back in and God unfreezes Ella and, by this time, Ella has gotten the message and starts listening to God. She takes a drink of water, the glass rattling on her teeth.

God tells Ella that she has talked to him for forty years and he can remember her prayers from the age of four.  Ella says that she doesn’t believe in God.

“You talk, but you don’t ask.” – God

But God reveals a little vicious streak in him when he tells Ella that she believes that her autistic son will call her mother one day and that her husband will come back to her. The words stab at the heart of her entire being.

Anat Gov, the writer, has written a very moving play which was voted Best Play in Israel in 2012, the year of her death, at the tender age of fifty-five, after a long struggle with cancer. This is the American Premiere and a translated version of the Hebrew text.  (Translations between languages are tricky and hopefully nuances were not lost in the translation.)

“God hath delivered me to the ungodly, and turned me over into the hands of the wicked.” – Job 16:11. The Holy Bible

Howard Teichman, the director, does a nice job putting it all together, nice show, nice evening with remarkable talent. But there more to be had in the moments that should collectively make the production soar.  On this night, they struggled to make the emotional connection that one hopes to get in the theatre. And that connection is the one thing that causes a reaction, an emotional moment, that keeps you in your chair long after the light come up.  And also, I have to be hit over the head of “Why this woman?  Why today?  Why now?” One is not sure these questions were answered in the execution.   Also, G appears dressed in the manner of the Orson Welles character in “The Third Man” in a moment that isn’t fully realized. There is a reason “The Third Man” poster is on the wall and a reason that G enters Ella’s home dressed like Orson Welles, coming in as the wind in one moment and Orson Welles in the next.   Comedy, and this is a comedy, is best served on a cold plate of pain. And the pain is inside all of the characters who are reaching for the one thing they truly want. There is more to be had here.  Still, it is early in the run and tweaks will make it that much better.

Maria Spassoff and Mike Burstyn

Mike Burstyn plays G and does a tremendous job.  G has a problem and he comes to get counseling. He is still feeling guilty about the way he treated Job. He needs help and he needs it right now or else he will die and take everyone with him. There is a time element here in which the character, God, must feverishly pursue his objective and there is little time to lose. Burstyn is an amazing actor, his moments are carefully constructed, and there is a delightful simplicity to his work, and I’ve already mentioned his great voice, but I’ll say it again, great voice!   

Maria Spassoff does some amazing work as Ella, a strong vibrant professional woman who will do anything to help her clients.  Ella is at the end of her rope.  Her son will never get better and that part of her life is a daily struggle.  She needs her husband to come back but more than anything she needs to move on.   She needs her son to call her mom.  She needs inspiration. But what she gets instead is more trouble.  Ella suddenly finds herself in a position of trying to save the world; the weight of humankind is on her shoulders.  Her job is to help God and in doing so save humankind.    

Joseph Rishik plays Ella’s son Lior. His playing of the cello is fine, with some very lovely music coming out of his instrument. But his role as an autistic son requires a better-developed character and a clear and meaningful objective.

Jean Himmelstein and Howard Teichman are the Producers, and once again have done an outstanding job.

Other members of this outstanding crew are as follows:

Bill Froggatt – Associate Producer & Sound Designer

Kurtis Bedford – Set Designer

Gil Tordjman – Stage Manager and Lighting Designer

Michael Lamont – Photographer

Ken Werther Publicity – Press Representative

Run!  Run!  And take someone who likes to read The Holy Bible.

Tickets:  www.wjct.tix.com

Reservations:  323-821-2449

The Pico Playhouse
10508 W. Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA  90064

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