By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Sure enough, he’s a government man working for a secret research project focused on plutonium’s effects on genetic mutation. (Pluto, as Welch reminds Frank, is “the god of hell.”) He’s here to retrieve one of the project’s guinea pigs, who happens to be Frank and Emma’s visiting houseguest, Haynes (Curtis Armstrong). Haynes, a rabbitty man who resembles economist Robert Reich, sends off blinding electrical charges whenever he touches people. These lighting projections, designed by Jason H. Thompson, give the production a playful jolt but, unfortunately, provide its only spark and illumination.
The problem with Shepard’s play is that, having exhausted its ability to spoof early on, it has nowhere to go. There’s not a moment of suspense, because we can easily discern where it’s headed — this isn’t a story where people make decisions, change opinions or overcome obstacles. Certainly not obstacles like Welch. Frank, Emma and Haynes are doomed from the moment Welch rings the doorbell. Nor are Alexander’s comic impulses the subtlest — his habit of cuing cattle moos nearly every time Frank mentions his heifers quickly grows tiresome, and his use of “The Star-Spangled Banner” adds new meaning to the word sledgehammer. Furthermore, it’s not enough that Welch decorates the kitchen in red, white and blue — Alexander makes sure he’s also wearing an American-flag necktie and, just in case we miss Emma’s dottiness, he has her speak in a goofy Fargo accent. For all these slapstick embellishments, Alexander steers a game cast along at a surprisingly poky pace — his 80-minute version is actually longer than most previous productions.
Still, it says a lot that a veteran American playwright — and self-described nonpartisan — such as Shepard has been so moved by the antics of the Bush administration that he has written a work brimming with rage and melancholy. When Frank sighs, “I miss the Cold War,” Shepard is not simply being ironic — there’s a genuine sadness for the loss of what he considers a time of perfection, much in line with the old Merle Haggard lament, “Are the Good Times Really Over.” To some, that time is simply an era of kitschy ceramics and vintage Mixmasters, but to Frank and Emma, as well as Khaled, it is a time before the government came knocking. ?
THE GOD OF HELL | By SAM SHEPARD | At GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Through July 30 | (310) 208-5454