Justin Doran and Kim Tobin-Lehl in The God Game. Photo Credit, Gabriella Nissen.
The God Game
Written by: Suzanne Bradbeer
Directed by: Jennifer Dean
Starring: Justin Doran, Philip Lehl, and Kim Tobin-Lehl
Company: Stark Naked Theatre
Run dates: Sept 5th – 20th, 2014
“I’ve just been asked to run for the Vice President of the United States, the most powerful country in the world. Don’t you want to admire me or something?” So says the cool-headed, capable and charismatic Junior Senator from Virginia, Tom, to his wife Lisa. But as Suzanne Bradbeer’s play title, The God Game, suggests, Lisa’s answer won’t be based on Tom’s merit alone. Higher powers, or the belief in them, are what’s really being held up for consideration in this wonderfully directed and performed play that poses some decidedly meaty questions but never really digs down enough to turn our heads for more than a moment.
The premise is terrifically uncluttered. Tom (Justin Doran) and Lisa (Kim Tobin-Lehl) are a seemingly typical, mostly-happy, middle class political couple. Tom works too hard, Lisa throws herself into charity work. Even the wrinkles are clearly drawn. Tom’s brother Jay (who was also Lisa’s best friend) has died recently in an accident and the couple is struggling to come to terms with the loss. Lisa turns to her strong Christian faith for solace; Tom turns away from belief in God altogether. It’s a source of some friction for the couple who, in Tom’s words, are managing to navigate the situation. That is until Tom and Lisa’s ex-friend Matt (who also happens to be Jay’s old boyfriend and an advisor to a right-wing Governor) shows up on the couple’s anniversary eve with more than well wishes and mending fences in mind. Matt (Philp Lehl) has a proposition for Tom in the shape of a VP running-mate offer from his boss. It’s an incredible opportunity for Tom who jumps at the assurance that as part of the deal he would be able to push forward his environmental agenda and not kowtow to the Governor’s extreme right views.
There’s just one hitch. The God stuff. Upon learning that Tom is a non-believer, Matt starts his spin in hopes that he can talk Tom into “sounding more Christian in his speeches and views…and saying God bless American more.” Its good spin that everyone is buying into expect for Lisa who sees the pitfalls ahead both professionally, “You can’t run if you don’t believe in God. Better if you kicked small dogs or tweeted photos of your penis”, and personally, “How am I supposed to look at you across the breakfast table if you lie about your belief if God?” It is with this dilemma that Bradbeer sets in motion what could have been a searing or even disquieting discussion of the place of faith in modern politics or the lies we tell ourselves in the name of faith to get what we want.
Instead, Bradbeer’s script stays on the comfy side of the road and examines the issue with a fairly light touch. Yes, we see marital strife and career hand wringing over what to do, but this is all couched in humour (which is often quite funny) and narrative that makes sure no seat squirming takes place. My quarrel with this is not that the results aren’t entertaining. They are. Bradbeer’s script does a splendid job capturing politicos in process, old friends finding their footing again and comic relief in the form of an ongoing Nixon gag. Under Jenifer Dean’s direction, the nearly two-hour show breezes by with ease and grace and ensures that all sides of the faith discussion are given equal affection. But entertaining doesn’t mean intriguing and in this case opportunity lost clouds any true enthusiastic engagement with the issue or the play.
What is crystal clear however, is the talent on stage. What the script lacks in complexity, each of the three performers makeup for with holistically human portrayals that reach far beyond the character parameters they are given. Doran gives us a Tom that while calm and practical in his doubt is also vulnerable enough to be tempted into putting his ambition before his convictions. It’s a smooth, almost liquid performance that utilizes his physical presence to the utmost. Wrapping his wife Lisa in his arms and shushing her to calmness is like a warm blanket over the entire audience. How could we not trust this lovely man even if he’s willing to put his principles aside? Tobin-Lehl’s Lisa is a wonderful mix of emotion and reason and anger and foresight. Tobin-Lehl’s gift in this role is that she combines it all together to give us a woman that we may not side with philosophically, but we always respect. But it’s Lehl as Matt that impresses the most. Lehl’s take on the one not terribly likeable character is to make no apologies for him. Lehl plays a gay man with mercifully no cliché or affectation but still wondering if love will one day be his, a political animal who puts career first and only blinks to see what he’s lost every once in a while and an old friend who may have behaved badly but still cares. These shades of grey come off Lehl like continually thrilling cascades made even more impressive by how effortless his whole performance seems. Together this cast elevates Bradbeer’s script and almost makes us forget what we are missing.
For those that want religious debate – The question is there, but the discussion is weak. The God Game looks more closely at what believing or not believing in God does to a relationship than its implications in society or politics as a whole. Its debate-light at a micro level and this may not satisfy your need for robust discussion. MAYBE SEE IT
For fans of political process stories – Here is where Bradbeer does some good work. The VP vetting process, including the faith issue, while not exactly House of Cards oily, is shown in an unflattering light. Spin and promises and managing personalities are in full bloom here and it’s intriguing to watch. SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – Issue plays can be problematic for you as they are often talk-heavy or even preachy. This is not the case here. The issue is kept fairly light; the players are fun to watch and the trajectory of the plot clear as day. Add in a polished production and it’s an entertaining dramatic night in the theatre. SEE IT
For theatre junkies – Lack of depth in writing renders this a ‘so what’ type of play post production. But even with this disappointment there is much to admire. Deft direction, excellent performances and some tightly written comic bits make this play enjoyable if not terribly intriguing. MAYBE SEE IT