The verdict is in. God is not dead. And rumors of his death, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have been greatly exaggerated.
In fact, the deity—He, She or That Which Transcends All Else—is alive and well at Mosaic Theater Company, where Oh, God is now enjoying an extended DC premiere.
The play, by Anat Gov, is based on the premise that God, having succumbed to despair, must turn to a therapist for help. He’s so depressed that he wants to wipe out everything he created. But he’s willing to give his creation—the world and all that’s in it—one more chance.
Can the therapist talk him out of this act of total destruction? It’s a challenge. After all, she’s a specialist in learning disorders, not narcissism. She’s also not religious.
On the other hand, she’s an optimist, a single mother who provides love and cello lessons for a teenage son so impaired that he cannot speak. Who better than she to persuade a reluctant ruler to stick around?
And so she does. The two debate the past and future of the world, tossing scripture—chapter and verse—across the couch and around the doctor’s home office.
The result is a cross between a sitcom and Torah study. It’s a dizzying duel, and sometimes the barbs go by so fast, especially when we get to the Book of Job, that it can be hard to follow.
Luckily, Oh, God is blessed by two superb actors—Kimberly Schraf as the psychotherapist, named Ella, and Mitchell Hébert as God—who bring this battle of the Book to life.
Both characters glide through a series of changes that are startling to watch. Under Michael Bloom’s masterly direction, they literally circle each other, brandishing comfort and crossing swords.
Schraf’s transformation from the brisk but witty professional eager to finish the session (and pocket her 400 shekels) to the woman who has chosen life is remarkable. One of the most moving moments in Oh, God comes when Ella embraces Lior, her frightened autistic son, calming him after breaking a picture frame.
Ironically, the picture frame happens to contain a portrait of what appears to be Orson Welles.
It’s a wonderful sight joke, since Hébert, who is the ultimate macho God, actually looks like Welles. Granted, he is taller. He looms over Ella, dressed entirely in black, and wields power and might with his outstretched hand. He is wickedly comic, embodying, perhaps, a touch of the devil. But Ella is not afraid, despite his enthusiasm for hurling thunderbolts.
But God has lost his power. Nobody is paying attention. This is a God who believes he’s been rejected. Upstaged by Jesus and Mohammed, he’s not even sure that he belongs on stage.
There is a third character in this drama, and that is Lior, the 16-year-old autistic son confined with his cello to a room at the back of the house while God is having his session.
With help from special needs consultant Dana Gillespie, Sean McCoy delivers a brief but electrifying performance as the child at the core of Ella’s existence.
Anat Gov, the playwright, was known as the ‘Wendy Wasserstein of Israel’ for her ability to combine comedy and loss. She was particularly skilled at fusing sitcom with political reality.
Oh, God is no exception. According to Serge Seiden, who co-founded Mosaic four years ago with Ari Roth, its artistic director, the play is a comedy of ideas. It pits the feminist therapist against the traditional, paternalistic model of God, and makes the case for compassion over power.
Seiden’s remarks came as part of a talk to members of Footlights, DC, a theater-lovers group that meets monthly to hear playwrights, producers, directors and actors talk about, and then attend, contemporary plays (Membership is free. For information, click here).
“The Book of Job is the pivot on which the whole drama turns,” Seiden said. “For Israeli audiences, Oh, God is a deeply political play,” he added. “It’s about reconciliation.”
Reconciliation was certainly the name of the game when Ari Roth, Mosaic’s founder, took the stage, sitting side by side with Carole Zawatsky, chief executive of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center, just before the opening of Oh, God.
Facing a full audience at Mosaic, the two—who had worked together for 18 years while Roth was artistic director of the JCC’s Theater J—held an extraordinary conversation.
“This is a meeting borne of tragedy,” Zawatsky said. The decision to end the four-year split was an aftermath to the shooting in Pittsburgh. “It was the worst attack on Jews in American history,” she added, “and it was a reminder of how much we shared.”
Roth agreed, reflecting on the need to “warm the waters” following the chill of their theatrical divorce “and to work out how, as two of Washington’s leading theaters, we will march together.”
There is plenty of room in Washington for both. For Roth, who is the son of Holocaust survivors, Theater J is—and remains—a shining example of what a Jewish theater can be. Mosaic is something different, a “mosaic” in the artistic sense, composed entirely of multi-ethnic ideals.
For me, and for most theater-lovers in Washington, DC, this is a rapprochement as moving as it is long overdue. It is also an astonishing case of life imitating art.
The decision to stage Oh, God, which was chosen by Mosaic to launch its annual Voices From a Changing Middle East Festival, was made long before the Pittsburgh tragedy took place. Yet it could not have been a more appropriate backdrop to this declaration of peace.
My colleague, John Stoltenberg, has called this play “a miracle on H Street” (read here for John’s truly divine take on Oh, God).
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Oh, God plays through January 20, 2019, at Mosaic Theater Company of DC performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H St NE in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext 2 or purchase them online.