Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Liz Lauren.
Sometimes a play just bites off more than it can chew. You listen to the dialogue and know you have a strong and fascinating playwright, but there is just something…off…in the presentation. That is the case in Lookingglass Theatre’s latest offering, the world premiere of Act(s) of God, written by ensemble member Kareem Bandealy and directed by Heidi Stillman. There is a lot of territory to cover in Bandealy’s script, which is a family drama hiding within an absurdist play that deals with important issues of religion and the end of the world.
On the day in 2029 when a giant meteor barely misses the earth, the family (we never learn their names) are gathering together at the desert home of the parents (Shannon Cochran and Rom Barkhordar) for some sort of holiday. The Middle child (Anthony Irons) arrives with his fiancée (Emjoy Gavino) in tow. They have been engaged for years but the rest of the family has never met her. They are followed home by the Youngest (Walter Briggs) and the Eldest (Kristina Valada-Viars) on what becomes a tremendously consequential day in the history of the family: a mysterious letter shows up saying that God will be visiting them for dinner tomorrow.
The Eldest, a lesbian atheist writer, doesn’t believe it at all (especially since, alone among them, she can see no writing on the message). The others (whose occupations are not disclosed) immediately seek to prepare for the coming of the Almighty, whom Mother is convinced is a woman. This is, the Eldest excepted, a highly religious family, following some new religious tradition that has popped up in the future world. A visit from God is a high honor, and everyone knows it whether they believe it or not.
Act One of this two-and-a-half-hour play takes us through their discovery of the letter and their reactions to it. Act Two takes place after the anticlimactic dinner with God, while the Deity is sleeping it off in the computer room (which, we are pointedly told several times, does not have a computer). Act Three takes place the next day. To be honest, I was not enthralled by Act One: it’s always interesting to meet the characters of a play, but this act just seemed to roam around in circles without really getting anywhere and the dialogue here is nowhere near as crisp and pointed as it gets later. Act Two is when the thing really comes together, as the narcoleptic father sleeps in a chair and the rest of the family tries to deal with what has just happened to them.
It is in Act Two that the family is forced to deal with themselves: their awkward inter-relationships and failed expectations. The tone shifts from comedic to dramatic as they attempt to understand what has happened and recognize the serious flaws in themselves. Middle child is a thirty-something man who desperately needs love and attention. He is a devoutly religious man but a miserly one, and his sister points out the disconnection of those two conditions. Youngest child is around thirty and nowhere near as bright as his siblings, both of whom can talk circles around him. He accepts this with resignation but also a little bit of resentment. And Eldest, the atheist, is convinced that their visitor is not God at all. The arguments that the family gets into in Act Two all go through her, as her grounded realism clashes with their spirituality.
Bandealy’s vision of the future has the Middle child owning an “S20” phone with “holographic capability” and people traveling in “T-Pods” to their faraway destinations. It doesn’t, however, seem that LGBT issues have moved on at all. The mother is upset that her daughter is a “dyke” as well as an artist, both of which she holds as failings, and we are told about the blow-up that occurred when she came out. There is also a pretty ancient radio on the set, clashing with the rest of the story. Every time they reminded me that we were in 2029, I found my eyes drifting to it and wondering why.
Act Three of the play dives deeply into the absurdist style as the tech crew gradually empties the room around the family, who continue their discussion as if nothing is happening and ultimately end up separated into their own little empty worlds. When the payoff comes, it comes suddenly: a powerful physical moment in keeping with the absurdism of the final act, but not well telegraphed.
Still, Stillman gets strong performances from her gifted ensemble, especially from the women. Cochran is excellent as the mother: all anticipation in Act One, all frustration in Act Two, forever the women who “bled (the children) into the world.” Valada-Viars is easily the most vivid of the second generation here, partly because Bandealy focused more on her character’s development than the others but also due to her multifaceted performance.
Ultimately I can’t fully recommend this play, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t find parts of it fascinating. Bandealy is dealing with issues of cosmic proportions here while visiting with a single dysfunctional family; it makes for an interesting twist and an interesting dichotomy. But I wonder if aiming for less might have served him more.
Act(s) of Godis a Lookingglass Theatre production now playing at 821 N. Michigan Ave, Chicago, until Apr 7. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.