by John Stoltenberg
Theater and theology have been boon companions for eons. Ever since religion was invented, humans have wanted divinities with drama. Way back in polytheistic antiquity, playgoers imagined gods as celestial celebs who are just like us. When monotheism came along, it simplified the godhead dramatis personae—and the smaller-cast show turned out to be very tourable—but the human urge to anthropomorphize the otherwise unknowable hung on.
To that tried-and-tested trope, the acclaimed Israeli playwright Anat Gov has tacked on therapy: She wrote a comedy called Oh, God in which God visits a shrink. Like literally and hilariously, the Judeo-Christian God character comes to see a psychologist because he’s having issues—which is such a perfectly relatable extension of the theater/theology formula, it’s a wonder no one thought of it before.
Now having its DC premiere at Mosaic on H Street in a production directed nimbly by Michael Bloom, Gov’s Oh, God proves itself much more than its punchline-setup premise might suggest. What begins rib-tickling turns soul-searching and by the end gets heart-stirring. It’s an ingeniously moving comedy that well earns the adjective divine.
Oh, God is set in the home office of Ella, a psychologist who specializes in early childhood learning disorders, hence a children’s play area stage right, and who likes to garden, hence an outdoor area stage left. Set Designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson styles the room with plants and bright colors and suspends ivy-trimmed lattices overhead against a cyc evoking sky. It is a pleasant, welcoming space lit cheerfully by Lighting Designer Brittany Shemuga. And pre-show, Sound Designer Roc Lee pipes in relaxing Muzak covers of Beatles tunes.
Ella is played by Kimberly Schraf with an ethereal grace and polished poise that belie Ella’s own psychological distress. She is single mom to a 14-year-old son named Lior, who is severely autistic but also a gifted cellist. Lior is played by Sean McCoy with striking believability (the program credits Special Needs Consultant Dana Gillespie) and impressive cello chops. When Ella tells Lior she has a new client coming, he becomes agitated.
Enter a man in black, also agitated but for cosmic cause. A run of therapist-office jokes ensues as Ella tries to find out what his story is and why he needed to see her so urgently.
“What’s your name?” she asks.
“I am who I am,” he answers.
His father? He had none. His mother? Ditto. “So you were an orphan from birth?” she offers. Affirmative.
Ella is not about to believe anymore in God. “I’m secular,” she says, “I eat shrimp wrapped in bacon.” But he overcomes her skepticism with some otherworldly sound and light cues, and the two get to work. Turns out, God’s woes and travails have driven him to the brink of deciding to end it all—meaning Ella’s mission is to save creation from total destruction.
Mitchell Hébert plays God with an awesome emotional command that ranges from self-pitying whimpering to gale-force Charleton Heston rage with a couple hilarious crying jags in between. And a remarkable thing happens in the deft interplay between Hébert and Schraf: As God the character steadily becomes credible to Ella, he takes on genuine psychological depth for us as well. Some of it is played for laughs (He has a fear of abandonment by humans. “They don’t love me, they love Jesus”). Some of it is played for real. And Ella herself is revealed as someone with her own dark night of the soul.
About two-thirds in, Ella lets loose, railing against God for his power-tripping and epic violence (“What kind of God are you?!” “Only God could be so inhuman!”). She nails him for his mistreatment of Job, whose love and loyalty he rewarded with hardship and affliction. And she accuses God of acting “like an abusive man.” It is a stunning turnabout, theatrically, theologically, and (perhaps for some in the audience) therapeutically.
Because Oh, God works as a divine comedy whatever one’s religious beliefs (including none of the above), it works as seasonal programming in wondrous ways. One might call it a miracle on H Street.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Oh, God plays through January 13, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company performing at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lang Theatre – 1333 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.