The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, actor, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Unanswered Prayer: ‘The Good Book’ West Coast Premiere at Berkeley Rep

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“What if God was one of us?
Just a slob like one of us?
Just a stranger on a bus/
Tryin’ to make his way home?”
– Joan Osborne, “One of Us”, Relish

[NOTE: This show features attempted suicide and multiple uses of strobe lighting.]

If there’s one good thing I can say about Berkeley Rep’s production of The Good Book, it’s that the show is definitely better than the last Lance Gardner show I saw at the Rep. That show was too long, too pretentious, too unfocused, and it exploited the image of a lynched Black man for shock value. The Good Book is completely different in that it doesn’t have a single image of a lynched Black man.

Like that earlier show, this one features a talented cast who start off presenting an intriguing meta-theatrical interpretation that is soon abandoned by the text’s poor characterizations. The central subject of the early scenes is The Bible. A woman (Annette O’Toole) and her companions gather around to folding tables and start shooting out faith-related questions. The most important is asked by the lead woman herself, Bible in hand: “What’s this thing for and why did we write it?”

These questions lead to flashback reenactment of “4000 years ago in Mesopotamia”. We witness a man of that time standing over the grave of his wife as his living son stands by. Two travelers arrive. They represent a new faith. Like the man, they’ve lost close family members lately, but have found peace in their faith. Though the man declines their invitation to travel with them, he allows them to take his son, so that the boy will tell the story of where he’s from and who birthed him. Had the play been nothing but these reenactments and scenes like the opening table discussion, I’d be praising it to the high heavens whose existence our characters debate.

Unfortunately, playwrights Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson are less interested in the historical context of the Bible and more interested in telling the story of an atheist with a victim complex and a young man struggling with his sexuality in the most melodramatic fashion. That these stories are stretched over three long, laborious hours makes it the theatrical equivalent to balancing two heavy Bibles on your outstretched hands for the same amount of time.

The stories are those of Miriam (O’Toole) and Connor (Keith Nobbs). Despite Miriam being an atheist, she’s a Bible historian at a prestigious university. She says she loves the Bible for its poetry, in spite of all its narrative and ethical contradictions. That alone would make for a compelling story, but Miriam is an “atheist” in the fashion of one you’d find in a Pure Flix movie: a tragedy in her past made her turn her back on God, now she’s vehemently (nay, venomously) anti-God. Even her boyfriend of more-than-a-decade has hid his Christianity from her in fear of her reaction. And I haven’t even mentioned the reporter from The New Yorker who interviews Miriam purely for the sake of writing a “hit piece” on her.

In the parallel story, we meet Connor, a kid so pious that he could probably name all the books of the Bible better than the members of his immediate family. His dream is to one day grow up and become a priest. Then puberty hits and Connor begins noticing boys. No matter how much he prays not to, he can’t help but notice them. It so occupies his thoughts that, at one point, he tries to silence those thoughts permanently.

You can see, I hope, the seeds of one or two great stories buried there? Connor’s story could – and probably should – be a show unto itself. Miriam’s story probably could be interesting if it weren’t so clichéd a full of thin characterizations. And the intrigue of the first two scenes comes from a power that belies those scenes’ simplicity and should have been the sole focus of the play. These three parts would all be better on their own (some more than others), but don’t at all fit together. And we’re stick with them for three interminable hours.

To the great credit of Annette O’Toole, she makes the best of what she’s given. Those of us who’ve grown up watching the actress know how much heart she can bring to her characters. But Miriam is less a person so much as a walking, talking thing to whom events happen. Keith Nobbs has much more to work with in Connor and does well. Paradoxically, it’s the oft-unnamed ensemble characters who fare best. Shannon Tyo’s deceptive New Yorker reporter is poorly written (between this and Han Ong’s Grandeur, why is it so hard for playwrights to actually learn how journalists operate?), but the actress herself is fine in the role. I’m not familiar with the work of her, Denmo Ibrahim, or Wayne Wilcox, but all make the best use of their stage time. Elijah Alexander brings a great deal of heart to Qasim, Miriam’s secretly Christian Arabic boyfriend. And you don’t need me to praise the acting (or directing) of Lance Gardner, even when the material he’s working with is lackluster.

Rachel Hauck’s set is an interesting use of maximizing the minimal. Consisting mainly of just wooden steps leading up to a platform with three layered walls, it looks like an auditorium used for a low-budget church, the one place it paradoxically never becomes. The addition of Alexander Nichols’ lights and projections transform it into a metaphysical area that appears to actually take place within an ancient text, as well as a simply university office where the untenured Miriam sets up. In fact, it’s Nichols’ lights (including strobes) and the sounds of Mark Bennett & Charles Coes that occasionally paint the scene better than the text. For instance, during a crucial car crash scene, director/co-writer Lisa Peterson has the ensemble manipulate the victim’s body to simulate the “slow motion” effect of a crash. I get what Peterson was going for, but it inspired more than a few chuckles from the folks sitting around me.

And that’s the problem with The Good Book as a whole: it’s so preoccupied with the idea that it’s saying something grand and important that it doesn’t bother to say it very well. It reduces its characters to stereotypes, reduces its arguments to t-shirt slogans, and gives up on its most intriguing angle early in the game. It doesn’t add anything new to the concept spiritualism vs. atheism, it just shapes them in the dismissive fashion one would expect from a Chick tract (albeit, with less bigotry). The cast try their best with what they’ve got, but just as you can’t “pray the Gay away”, you also can’t make a miracle out of a mess.

GRADE:                                                    D

The Good Book is scheduled to run until the 9th of June at Berkeley Rep’s Peet’s Theatre.
The show runs roughly 3 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
[PLEASE NOTE: This show features an attempted suicide and multiple uses of strobe lighting.]
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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