Friday, February 8, 2019

161 (2018-2019): Review: GOD SAID THIS (seen February 7, 2018)

“Cancer Can Kiss Her Ass”

What better setting for a play to hash out issues of life and death than within the confines of a hospital room, where someone’s life is in mortal danger? Countless plays have hospital scenes, of course, but some are entirely set in realistic replications of such forbidding, foreboding places, like Whose Life Is It Anyway?, Wit, and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Gynecologic Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital (yes, that’s a play by Halley Feiffer).
Ako, Jay Patterson. Photo: James Leynse.
As these titles imply, whoever’s going into that good night, gently or otherwise, is at least getting a good laugh out of it. Although its laughs could be bigger and more frequent, the intention is also true of God Said This, Leah Nanako Winkler’s (Kentucky) good-natured but uneven new dramedy at the Cherry Lane, which had its world premiere at Louisville’s Humana Festival last year.
Emma Kikue, Satomi Blair. Photo: James Leynse.
Winkler, of mixed Japanese and Caucasian heritage, is from Kentucky, not a place with which one typically associates such racial diversity. It does provide, however, a modicum of interest to her play, directed with questionable overkill by Morgan Gould, which otherwise is a standard-issue work in which a loved one’s illness brings together the disparate members of a dysfunctional family. Written while her own mother was dying of cancer, its autobiographical quality—regardless of how fictionalized it may be—is both part of its charm and part of its weakness.

Winkler’s heroine, ailing from uterine cancer, is the charmingly feisty, middle-aged Japanese mom, Masako (Ako), ensconced up center in a Lexington, Kentucky, hospital bed for most of the hour and 40-minute play, whose action covers around four days. This perfect mother and loving wife hides her nearly bald head in a headscarf, and remains strong and optimistic enough—“Cancer can kiss my ass,” she snaps—to support her worried family. She sometimes utters a Japanese word, like oishii (delicious), but there’s little that otherwise marks the situation or conversations from an ethnic point of view. Meanwhile, Masako endures the anguish (and temporary relief) brought on by chemo and other treatments: vomiting, incontinence, pain, inability to eat—the whole nine yards.
Tom Coiner, Satomi Blair. Photo: James Leynse.
Her husband is James (Jay Patterson), a hulking, recovering alcoholic with a rustic, “y’all”-peppered accent, who also overcame a serious bout of cirrhosis. He now gets his greatest pleasure from collecting rocks—of which he speaks with the passion and (implausibly) technical language of a geologist—and selling them at flea markets.
Jay Patterson. Photo: James Leynse.
Because he was a lousy spouse and father, his survival, in the face of his perfect wife’s suffering and decline, seems intended as an ironic comment on God’s will. In the manner of so many current plays, he delivers much of the play’s exposition in straightforward narrative style, the premise being that he’s addressing an AA meeting.
Satomi Blair, Tom Coiner. Photo: James Leynse.
James and Masako’s 30ish daughters are Hiro (Satomi Blair), who’s returned to her mother’s bedside after seven years in New York, where she’s been building a career while her personal life has been crumbling, and Sophie (Emma Kikue), a born-again Christian with a propensity for citing Jesus and offering wordy prayers. Hiro and James are estranged, and Hiro is uncomfortable with Sophie’s religiosity.
Satomi Blair, Emma Kikue, Ako, Jay Patterson. James Leynse.
The only other character is John, a high school friend of Hiro’s with whom she’s reconnected via Facebook. A single dad (his late wife was an addict) with a 13-year-old son, and proud of his MBA, John smokes weed with the rather desperate Hiro but rebuffs her advances, preferring to keep their relationship platonic.
Emma Kikue. Photo: James Leynse.
The play avoids clichés about Kentucky rednecks, politics, and educational levels, focusing on the charting of the universality of the family’s interpersonal conflicts as Masako struggles to survive. Most of it will be familiar to anyone who’s been through something similar. Composed with heavy doses of profanity and a sweetly schmaltzy flashback conclusion, God Said This maintains its essentially plotless momentum by exploring the personal quirks of its characters, inserting cultural references (including sentimental musical interpolations, like having James sing “Heartbreak Hotel” or playing “Sometimes When We Touch”), and the piling on of crisis after crisis (including car and bike accidents) as an excuse for histrionic outbursts.
Emma Kikue, Ako, Satomi Blair. Photo: James Leynse.
Ako (once a member of Japan’s all-female Takarazuka Revue) is perfectly cast as Masako, touchingly evoking the woman’s warmth and sincerity. Without revealing too much, I’ll mention that, while she spends most of the play upstage and in bed, in the most unattractive of circumstances, she manages at one point to make a startling physical transformation. Patterson makes James much deeper than the hick he at first seems to be, Blair and Kikue make satisfactorily opposed sisters, one self-centered, the other Jesus-centered, and Coiner does fine as  Hiro’s local pal.  

While there’s much potential here for a heartwarming comedy of grown children learning to appreciate  their parents and of a family realizing how much its members need to love and forgive one another, Gould’s direction calls for so much forced hysteria, anger, and shouting that any honest feelings are smothered in thespian artificiality. I can’t deny that there was laughter around me but everything was pushed so hard that I don’t think I cracked a smile more than once or twice.

This Primary Stages production benefits from a realistic hospital room setting by Arnulfo Maldonado on which scenes not in the hospital, as in a car or elsewhere, are presented downstage, without the fuss of any scenic changes. Ryan Seeling creates suitable lighting that helps isolate scenes outside the room, Jessica Pabst dresses everyone appropriately, and M.L. Dogg adds a just-right sound design.

God Said This has its virtues but too many remain on paper, squashed by less than subtle direction. Then again, the direction may represent a need to cover writing problems. Wherever the problem lies, God Said This only rarely spoke to me.

Cherry Lane Theatre
38 Commerce St., NYC