BWW Review: GOD'S FAVORITE at Chaffin's Barn is Funny, Irreverent and Sincere
American playwright Neil Simon's prolific and wide-ranging contributions to theater range from the sublime (The Odd Couple and Rumors) to the ridiculous (Fools), with God's Favorite - now onstage through tomorrow - falling somewhere in the middle. While it's not one of the master craftsman's best scripts, it nonetheless is certain to provoke thought and when performed by a talented cast of actors, like it is in its current iteration at The Barn, it is certain to entertain and to evoke an emotional response.
Directed by Joy Tilley Perryman (who, with Curtis Reed, Jenny Norris and Daniel DeVault now comprise the "artistic team" at the iconic dinner theater's helm), God's Favorite has all the elements of farce (something at which Simon is consummately adept), but its Biblical inspiration gives the comedy more gravitas than might be expected upon first consideration. There are no pies in the face, no slamming of doors - although there are some instances of mistaken identity, to be certain - but the play's examination of how one staunch believer's will and fortitude is tested ensures a more measured reaction to what transpires onstage.
The show's uneven tone - at one minute, everything is played for laughs, while at the next there is a serious consideration of how one's faith is tested daily in a myriad of ways - may account for its lack of popularity in comparison to Simon's major theatrical hits, but what playwright doesn't have a few misses on his scoreboard in a career as multi-faceted as Simon's?
Perryman, who plays the housekeeper to the play's central figure Joe Benjamin (played with deft skill and heartfelt authenticity by John Mauldin), directs the play with a clear-eyed view of what it's about. She approaches the material with some deference, but she steadfastly remains dedicated to providing Barn audiences with a production that is eminently watchable and somewhat edifying in the process.
To her credit, she has assembled an impressive cast of actors (a blend of faces both old and new on the magical floating stage) to bring Simon's story to life with vigor and enthusiasm. Mauldin, whom you might be inclined to follow anywhere, anytime he sets his feet on a stage, delivers yet another thoroughly believable performance, injecting his script-bound character with theatrical intensity that never once wavers, thus creating a believable persona that drives the story home. As Joe Benjamin, who fervently believes in his God and whose faith never wavers despite a series of horrific events that might drive lesser men to craven idols and Scientology, Mauldin's sincerity and focus anchors the production with a certain unexpected nobility.
Playing opposite Mauldin as Sidney Lipton, the messenger sent by God (presumably) to test Joe Benjamin's faith, W. Scott Stewart provides strong support, counterbalancing Mauldin's onstage demeanor with a graceful ease, even while delivering lines both comedic and tragic. Together, the two actors provide a master class for aspiring young thespians lucky enough to be in their audience.
As Rose, Joe's long-suffering and acerbic wife, Jenny Wallace delivers yet another memorable performance, performing with her enormous talents a second act monologue that will likely elicit an emotional response. (Dear God: May we see Jenny starring in a dramatic work far worthier of her talents? Just a thought...Jef).
Elijah Wallace, Annika Burley and Ben Woods star as Joe and Rose's three children, with Charlie Winton completing the cast as Morris, the Benjamin family butler (and husband to Tilley Perryman's Mady).
God's Favorite. By Neil Simon. Directed by Joy Tilley Perryman. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, 8204 Highway 100, Nashville, Tennessee. Through June 22. For details, go to www.chaffinsbarntheatre.com; for reservations, call (615) 646-9977. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.