God is everywhere — even in the theater. Miracles abound in a new musical at the Ahmanson, Leap of Faith, about a Kansas community being tested by a gospel preacher/con man. Miseries abound for a successful Long Island businessman in the old Neil Simon comedy at Actor's Co-op, God's Favorite, because he's being tested by the Almighty. In both productions, what's more likely to be tested is the audience's patience, yet both have their charms.
Each play is looking for some purpose from the past. Leap of Faith (music by Alan Menken, book by Janus Cercone with Glenn Slater, lyrics by Slater) is based on the 1992 Steve Martin movie (scripted by Cercone). God's Favorite is based on the Book of Job — the forlorn protagonist is named Joe Benjamin — which is really going back some. Simon sets it in 1974, an era that director Greg Zerkle drives home in a blend of nostalgia whimsy and vintage video broadcasts of commercials (for RC Cola, "light on the gas," and for Bic Bananas, a lightweight pen that veterans of the disco era may recall with affection). The videos are more than justified by the comedy's setting: "a soundstage of the Co-operative Broadcasting System." So the play itself attempts to transform a theater audience into a TV studio audience. This may sound anti-theatrical, but it's actually just the opposite. When some of the actors ham it up with oversized one-liners accompanied by mugging expressions as though waiting for a laugh track, the moment becomes infused by a commentary on the sitcom form. What this has to do with the Book of Job escapes me.
The burly, crop-haired Steve Gustafson bears a fleeting resemblance to Jackie Gleason, which plays well in his portrayal of Joe Benjamin, a rags-to-riches cardboard-box magnate who remembers, as a child, a household with more than a dozen siblings. He recalls having to take a number in order to secure a sleeping space. This is a story he loves to tell his alcoholic son, David (Jeff Guilfoyle), in a hopeless attempt to instill in the foundering youth an appreciation for all that has been bestowed upon him. For all the young man's careening around the stage while inebriated and swilling the hard stuff nonstop, both Guilfoyle and Gustafson anchor the story with a grounded acting style, compared with the rest of the Benjamin clan, who swirl around the father-son nucleus like electrons. This may be suggested by the script: Ben and Sarah (Adam Dlugolecki and Rhonda Kohl) are twins with identical goofy costumes (by Vicki Conrad). Their Mutt-and-Jeff routine might have fit were Joe and David likewise comedically grotesque, but that would have devastated the already fragile underpinnings of Joe's crisis. Even if we're supposed to be a studio audience watching the taping of a sitcom, there's still a clash of styles, and the comedy still misfires. Joe's wife, Rose (the solid Rebecca Hayes), also bounces through the action as though on a trampoline: part spouse, part comedic foil.
Things start to get interesting with the arrival of God's messenger, a schlub named Sidney Lipton (Greg Baldwin) — employed part-time, and temporarily laid off during Almighty cutbacks. Costumer Conrad emblazons Sidney's sweatshirt with a large "G," its outline flashing like a Vegas billboard. Lipton, almost blind, sports thick-rimmed glasses. This contributes to Baldwin's impressive comedy performance, which includes spinning rapidly through a selection of movie-celeb impersonations. So, yes, this is about as glib a representation of God, through his agent, as one could expect to find in a drama that hangs on a wager between God and Lucifer over whether the devout Joe will renounce his maker if things get too rough. And rough they get: The fire that guts his factory is just the beginning. The flames soon are pointed at the Benjamins' palatial home, before getting even more intimate — unscratchable itches on Joe's feet and in his sinuses, scorched skin that has Joe wincing with every embrace. Inexplicably, that pain — which Gustafson depicts with such comic savvy — subsides from one scene to the next for no apparent reason.
God's Favorite is a jokey comedy, which creates a challenge for any director of sustaining an emotional connection via the one-liners, which are a deflective source of engagement. The story pulls you in, and the style of wit strategically keeps exploding that connection. After a while, you may find yourself laughing, but you're also checking out.
There's some great banter in Leap of Faith between con man Jonas Nightingale and small-town diner waitress Marva McGowan. The play is set in the tiny, drought-plagued Kansas town where Jonas (Raul Esparza, in a spry and accomplished performance) and his gospel entourage have pitched their tent. Marva (Brooke Shields, smart and tender) has a son (Nicholas Barasch) who hobbles around on crutches, the first warning that we've entered a recycling bin trying to pass itself off as a theater: Amahl and the Night Visitors, Tartuffe, The Music Man and The Rainmaker all come to mind.
In the diner, Marva repels oily Jonas with refreshing wit and acumen. But his persistence is his charm, I guess. On her front porch, he holds her hand and admits he's a fraud, which is supposed to make him irresistible to poor Marva, who hasn't been touched in years. Formula should ring true, yet Marva's melting resolve is the first in a series of emotional frauds far more dire than those perpetrated by Jonas on the people of Kansas.
I liked the local sheriff (Jarrod Emick), who tries to protect his gullible community. His insistence upon saving the town by digging ever deeper for water is wearing thin with the locals, who need something more tangible to believe in — like Jonas. The sheriff actually did his research and has Jonas on racketeering charges. But even with such an open-and-shut case, and with Jonas in his clutches, the sheriff drops the whole thing when he sees for himself how much the townsfolk believe in Jonas. Yep, that's just how things are in law enforcement.
When things actually go well for Jonas, he has a crisis of conscience, like a career bank robber who wants to return the sack of cash after his first successful heist in years. God's Favorite may be jokey and facile, but at least it makes some sense.
Menken's music is appealing, with its pop-gospel stylings, but it, too, feels like it's been around the block a few times.
Robin Wagner's scenic design got a well-deserved round of applause when the lights first hit it — a gorgeous mural swath of parched cornfield against a water tower, spare and elegant. After 20 minutes, it didn't really much matter anymore.
LEAP OF FAITH | By ALAN MENKEN, JANUS CERCONE and GLENN SLATER | At the AHMANSON THEATRE, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. | Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; through Oct. 24 | (213) 628-2772.
GOD'S FAVORITE | By NEIL SIMON | Presented by ACTOR'S CO-OP at the CROSSLEY TERRACE THEATRE, 1760 N. Gower St., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; through Nov. 14 | actorsco-op.org. (323) 462-8460.