Los Angeles Theater Review: GOD ONLY KNOWS (Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills)

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by Jason Rohrer on March 23, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Hugh Whitemore’s 2001 play God Only Knows breaks some of the most basic rules of dramaturgy: a gun is introduced which does not go off; an argument is begun which is not finished; a story is alluded to but not played out.  A half-hour in, a character says “Let’s not have a theological debate,” and then engages in a ninety-Wendy Radford, Pippa Hinchley, Chet Grissom and David Hunt Stafford in GOD ONLY KNOWS at Theatre 40.minute theological debate.  This, after the ticking clock of an international-intrigue puzzle-thriller has been carefully hung over the proceedings.  In his International Herald Tribune review of the original London production, Sheridan Morley called it “the most spectacularly, hysterically awful drama to have hit the West End in a long time.”  The American premiere currently at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills is neither spectacular nor hysterical, and I have seen worse shows in Los Angeles within recent memory.  But it is hampered by that ludicrous script and by David McClendon’s direction, for which there is no word but flat.

Pippa Hinchley, Wendy Radford, Chet Grissom, David Hunt Stafford, and Ron Bottitta in GOD ONLY KNOWS at Theatre 40.Two middle-aged, middle-class English couples holidaying in Italy (Pippa Hinchley and Chet Grissom, Wendy Radford and Theatre 40 artistic director David Hunt Stafford) are joined by yet another middle-aged, middle-class Englishman (Ron Bottitta) who crashes into their garden.  It’s not as if the stay at the villa were any great shakes; they’ve already been reduced to Italian-language board games.  But when the party-crasher relays that he’s on the run from Vatican hit men for uncovering an ancient document disproving the divinity of Jesus Christ, hit men who are on their way here, right now, the interruption promises more excitement than any vacationer would wish.

Pippa Hinchley, Wendy Radford, Chet Grissom, David Hunt Stafford and Ron Bottitta in GOD ONLY KNOWS at Theatre 40.That promise of excitement is broken immediately and consistently.  Rather than exploit the drama potential of a paranoid gunman invading one’s home and shouting conspiracy theories, the play settles down (following an extended bout of exposition by a game Bottitta, into which his character must be coaxed by an astonishing number of “do tell us” and “you must tell us” encouragements) into a leisurely cocktail-hour argument about whether mankind needs religion: whether faith is a crutch keeping us reliant on emotion at the expense of our reason.

Pippa Hinchley, David Hunt Stafford, Chet Grissom and Wendy Radford in GOD ONLY KNOWS at Theatre 40.Online, you may watch dozens of debates between Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens, or Richard Dawkins and any number of Doctors of Divinity, all proving that there are fascinating places for this debate to go.  This play goes to none of them.  It does lay out a rudimentary historical-debunking argument of the sort relayed in Reza Aslan’s clunky 2013 bestseller, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  And the play’s potboiler framework makes obvious gestures toward the car-chase universe of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.  Either of those books, burned, would make more sense than this script even when spoken by the fine actors Theatre 40 has hired.

So much disbelief must be suspended that the concerted efforts of the Royal Corps of Engineers and Santa Claus could not support this project:

  • A man who believes himself in imminent danger of assassination sits and drinks wine and discusses philosophy.
  • An expert in historical detection actually fears that a single letter from an obscure Roman senator will upset the entire worldwide apparatus of Christianity.
  • That expert also happens to be such an ardent atheist that he’s comfortable holding the only “nay” card in a five-handed debate about God’s role in human life.
  • That expert also happens to have at his fingertips the scientific explanations for various uncanny phenomena, including near-death and out-of-body experiences.
  • None of his four well-educated professional acquaintances, from one of the most secular islands on Earth, have heard any of his arguments before, and so their oddly romantic worldviews are profoundly disturbed by his revelations.
  • Having already settled that the gunshots periodically occurring in the countryside around their villa are fired by poachers after wild boar, these five well-educated professionals come to believe that a well-organized secret society of professional killers might in fact be bumbling in the dark, randomly shooting off guns to announce their presence in the middle distance.

David Hunt Stafford, Wendy Radford, Ron Bottitta, Pippa Hinchley and Chet Grissom and in GOD ONLY KNOWS at Theatre 40.It’s not that the potboiler-of-ideas concept can’t work.  In the middle 20th Century, J.B. Priestley wrote very good ones with some regularity; An Inspector Calls and Dangerous Corner both use Agatha Christie framework to make commentary of some social consequence.  Both also feature corners around which actual danger lurks.  On Jeff G. Rack’s handsome veranda set, there is no corner, not even a change of levels, and woe to he who walks upstage right, outside of Ellen Monocroussos’s narrow lighting plot.  So all the talking (there is nothing else) takes place more or less center stage, with actors taking turns sitting with their backs to the audience.  The director of a talky play would do well to steer it toward some interesting staging, toward highs and lows of emotion and revelation, but McClendon seems to have felt as trapped as the characters.

Chet Grissom, David Hunt Stafford, Pippa Hinchley, Wendy Radford and Ron Bottitta in GOD ONLY KNOWS at Theatre 40.One or two of these actors – most of whom I’ve seen give excellent performances elsewhere – were a little shaky on the lines opening night, but they all are enthusiastically feeling around for character, for impetus, for a reason to be there.  Some characterizations are surprising, given the situation with which they must mesh; one oddly angry, one strangely apathetic, not all quite fit.  The actors’ work is nonetheless correct.  They’re trying to fulfill a requirement the writer and director should have provided us in the first place: the firm ground of given circumstance.

So, is it possible that given attention enough to character and motivation, a devoted director could make a show out of this preposterous script?  God may possibly know.  I don’t.

photos by Ed Krieger

God Only Knows
Theatre 40
Reuben Cordoba Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High School
241 S. Moreno Dr. in Beverly Hills
scheduled to end on April 20, 2014
for tickets, call (310) 364-0535 or visit www.theatre40.org

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