Joe Benjamin, the title character in God's Favorite, remarks early in the play: "There's something funny going on here.''
Later in the new staging at Richardson Theatre Centre, playgoers are likely to amend Joe's statement: "There's not quite enough funny going on here."
The playwright is none other than Neil Simon, of Odd Couple fame. We've come to expect more from this king of the one-liners, especially when his root source is the Old Testament.
Yeah, really. The "favorite"' of the title is, of course, Job from the biblical book of the same name. As Archibald MacLeish did in J.B., Simon moved the setting to 20th century U.S.A., specifically the affluent 1980s and a mansion on the ritzy north shore of Long Island, where Joe and his family live. Joe's love of and devotion to God are well-known. But who would guess that it's reciprocal? True: Joe is the Allmighty's pick of the human litter. That's why he has the dubious (it turns out) honor of being mankind's surrogate. Satan wagers that, given enough torment, Joe will renounce God. Never gonna happen, God replies.
Cue the torments: Factory burns, heat is turned off, aches and pains abound. ("Neuralgia with a side order of bursitis...")
Ben Westfried, as Joe, is nothing short of heroic as he wrings chuckles and the occasional guffaw from Simon's disappointing script. The actor's physical contortions during Joe's itch fit are worthy of a choreography credit.
Director and designer Rachael Lindley strains mightily to kick some life into this comedy. She inserts contemporary references to Joel Osteen and Charlie Sheen. And she makes a gutsy gender switch that pays off. Sidney Lipton, the scheming "messenger" who tries to sabotage Joe's faith, was written as a male and portrayed originally on Broadway by Charles Nelson Reilly. In the Richardson staging, Sidney is played to the kvetching hilt by Sara Ragsdale. Sidney is a thoroughly repulsive character, and while Ragsdale does not reverse this, she does succeed in making the wretch entertaining.
Roger Schwermer contributes some rewarding moments as Joe's tipsy first-born. Ditto Jenny King as his goofy daughter and Linda Bi as an insolent Asian servant.