This past weekend I visited a theatre space I had never been to before called The Actors Co-op’s Crossley Theatre. Located in the heart of Hollywood, the charming space consists of two theatres that are located on the campus of the Hollywood Presbyterian Church. This is interesting in itself as church and theatre don’t always seem to co-exist so easily together. One is a more restrictive institution, while the other questions many things that may or may not be offensive to a religious body.
That said, the play I saw was (coincidentally) “God’s Favorite” by Neil Simon. Originally produced in the 70’s, the play is a retelling of the biblical story of Job where cardboard box manufacturer Joe Benjamin (Steve Gustafson) is visited by a messenger of God. This messenger is a man named Sidney Lipton (Greg Baldwin) who cracks jokes like a Jewish vaudeville comedian and tells Joe that God wants him to do him one favor: he wants Joe to “renounce” him. This stuns Joe who is a devoutly religious man and he quickly wonders why God would want him to do such an offensive thing? As a result, he flatly refuses which eventually causes God to inflict a number of tragic events on him aimed at making him carry out what He’s asked. But while he keeps refusing to renounce God, his family and his livelihood are constantly threatened.
This is a play about faith and devotion. It’s about a man who is so firm in his beliefs and knowing what is “right” for himself, that even amidst setback after setback, he doesn’t waver in his faith. It’s also about a family who has different levels of faith.
His wife Rose (Rebecca Hayes) is so content in her belief that she will be provided for and that she deserves what she has, that she doesn’t appreciate what Joe has given her. His twins Ben and Sarah (Adam Dlugolecki and Rhonda Kohl) are so utterly devoted they are practically blind to anything going wrong, but also so dependent they literally act like toddlers even though they are young adults. His oldest son David (Jeff Guilfoyle) is the one with no faith. And that lack of faith has caused his life to be shattered and disillusioned to the point where he lives a life unhealthy and misdirected. He doesn’t believe his father is worthy of his faith and that lack of belief has caused his life to crumble into ruins.
While the message here is interesting, Simon’s play doesn’t really stand the test of time which is probably why it isn’t produced that often. Incredibly dated, director Greg Zerkle has even chosen to “take the audience back in time” by making it seem as though the audience is a “studio audience” watching a live performance of a play being aired on television. A number of old commercials are shown on TV’s on the sides of the stage which also “air” the play as it’s happening. While a cute idea, it doesn’t really add much to the show and in fact, was confusing. For a while I was thinking there was some concrete connection for this gimmick, but it seems as though it was simply supposed to help the audience get into an early 70’s mindset.
The pluses in this production are the lead performances. Gustafson is solid as the devout Joe who is faced with a number of tests and challenges that wake him up to the reality of the life he has created for himself. Baldwin’s crazy messenger Sidney Lipton boasts an energetic performance that slips into an old-school type of comedy, but still manages to make it seem fresh.
As a whole, though, the play feels off in today’s climate. One reason is that the family seemed to be an atypical family that has their firm religious beliefs. In today’s world, there has been a shift away from religion and more toward the spiritual. While some may argue this is heartbreaking, for many, it just seems to be a natural progression.
For me, my own move away from organized religion was a gradual wake-up call instigated by a number of things, not the least of which was common sense. But one of the bigger was organized religion’s general attitude toward gay people. (My side note here is that I’m aware that not all religons are against homosexuality, but the ones that are, are the most vocal.)
I’m not sure how being gay became the Bible’s number one abomination and sin, but it has. The few mentions of homosexuality in the Bible (none by Christ himself) have caused the continuous restriction of rights toward gay people that has so negatively affected the community (see the number of suicides reported lately) it’s hard to be a part of an institution that is so comfortable with their ignorance that they treat human beings unfairly.
I could go through all the reasons why people’s belief in the “gay” parts of the Bible are wrong, but I’d be preaching to the choir so I won’t waste my breath. As an author friend of mine once said, it’s not worth talking to overtly religious people about these issues because eventually you will hit the “Jesus wall” and the conversation will be over. Their reasoning begins and ends with The Good Book. Any sort of common sense or logic is overruled by a document written by human beings (not God) fifteen hundred years ago. That’s five hundred years AFTER Christ died. Clearly you can see how this book just might be a little off in the factual department, but for some reason, billions of people put their faith and livelihood in it just because generation after generation was told to believe it was absolute truth.
Yet, on the same hand, I can tell people that a certain famous actor is gay and these same people won’t believe it. They will demand proof. “How do you know? Have you SEEN him making out with a guy? Did you go on a date with him?” So even though it’s a known truth in the industry and many people have first-hand accounts about this actor’s gay dalliances, unless they see it for themselves or I tell them I have slept with him, it isn’t true.
So how is a belief in God any different? Why is my doubt not valid when the “facts” of God are only backed up by a book written two centuries ago? And why should I believe in the story of Christ when the exact same story has been handed down by other cultures for thousands of years before Christ supposedly existed? The exact same story! Carpenter? Check. Virgin birth? Check. December 25th birthdate? Check.
I can talk to the most logical and rational of people…. people who expect me to prove everything I say no matter what subject I’m discussing with them… yet these same people believe the Bible to be conclusive. We look back at the Greeks and we chuckle at their “Gods.” But who’s to say in a thousand years that human beings won’t look back at us and chuckle at our beliefs?
Which brings me back to faith.
I applaud people who have faith that God exists and they will go to some kingdom in the sky when they die. That they will have some sort of eternal life after this life is over. (It better be spectacular though if I have to spend eternity there, I’ll tell you that!) I think faith is a good thing, even if it’s just glorified hope. My problem, however, is when that faith causes the rights and livelihood of others to be denied.
My personal belief is that… if there is a God, he has no problem with my being gay. He made me this way. I’m not hurting anyone. My relationships are consensual. And quite frankly, it’s just about love. Most of those against homosexuality only see “sex” in that word. But being gay isn’t just about sex. Granted, our culture is more open about sex, but that’s just because we’re more straightforward about our sexuality than a lot of our straight counterparts. That doesn’t make us perverts, it makes us honest. But when it comes down to it, being gay just means that we fall in love with members of our own sex. We have loving feelings toward other men (or for lesbians, other women). It’s really not brain surgery. Love is love. I can’t control who I fall in love with. It’s not a choice. It’s a fact of nature. It’s found in hundreds of other species of animals. And to repeat… it’s about love. And when is consensual and honest love ever wrong?
So whether or not I believe in God, or wonder if we’re all just fooling ourselves into believing a fantasy that was created to not make us feel hopeless, there is one thing I can assure everyone, religious or not:
The earth will not implode if I am allowed to marry. Those that are straight will still be straight, and those that are gay will always be gay. And most importantly, the world will keep turning if gay people are treated as equals.
That, I have utter faith in.