This review of Neil Simon's God's Favorite at Studio Theatre Long Island was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
Written by Neil Simon
Directed by David Dubin
Studio Theatre Long Island
141 South Wellwood Avenue
Lindenhurst, New York 11757
God's Favorite opened on Broadway at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre on December 11, 1974. It closed on March 23, 1975, after 119 performances and 7 previews. In the original Broadway production, Vincent Gardenia played Joe Benjamin (a pious, God-fearing rich man living with his wife, three children, and a maid in a 19-room Long Island Mansion, full of original artwork and priceless jewelry) and Charles Nelson Reilly played Sidney Lipton (who is first thought to be a burglar, but who later reveals himself to be a somewhat odd-acting Messenger of God "who carries important documents only - no packages"). Sidney starts putting Jo.B. through all sorts of temptations and afflictions in an attempt to get him to renounce God. If you have read the Old Testament, you will find a very similar story in the Book of Job. In the biblical account, Job is a wealthy man who is "blameless" and "upright" always careful to avoid doing evil. One day Satan appears before God and gets tired of God boasting to him about Job's "goodness." Satan argues Job is only good because God has blessed him abundantly and that if God would give him permission to punish "God's Favorite," Job will turn and curse God. God accepts the challenge and Sidney Lipton (as perhaps an arbiter of God and Satan's bet, who lives with his wife in Jackson Heights, Queens) is sent to deliver the message and carry out the trials and tribulations Joe Benjamin is about to experience. The play attempts to address the eternal question regarding why bad things happen to good people. Without any good answers, the religious, and the Benjamin's, eventually, chalk it up to "God's will." ("Whatever happens, it's God's will.")
Joe Benjamin is a successful Jewish businessman who has become rich making quality boxes. He lives lavishly on an estate on the North Shore of Long Island that has a Baskin Robbins with 97 ice cream flavors in the clubhouse (because his youngest daughter loves ice cream). His diva wife Rose wears a lot of her expensive jewelry to bed. When a burglar is suspected, she doesn't want the police called because she believes they'd steal more than the crooks. David, Joe's oldest son, is brilliant and has three academic degrees yet he still lives at home, is an alcoholic, and curses his father because of the materialistic lifestyle they live. Sarah, Joe's youngest daughter, constantly has to be reminded to close her robe (or later, her garbage bag) and appears to fantasize about getting raped by the burglar even though her father has assured her that "with a half million dollars of jewelry in the house, rape is unlikely to be the first thing on the burglar's mind." Ben is Joe's most loyal son and Mady, the live-in maid, appears to sincerely care for the welfare of the Benjamin family. After all, as Rose points out to Joe, "Look. Mady is praying for you and it's her day off!"
Sidney starts the tests by burning down Joe's business (he had no insurance because he trusted in God) and his 19-room home including all his family's clothing (they were left wearing hefty garbage bags but his wife still wore her jewelry around her neck over the bag). Still not willing to renounce God, Joe found himself not able to chew or to swallow and his entire body hurt. His wife then implores him to stop all their suffering by renouncing God asking him how he could love someone who makes them suffer so much. She questions why Joe couldn't have "loved" a mistress like other men instead of "loving" his God. Joe still stands by God and his wife and two younger children leave him. Sidney then tries to trick him into renouncing God and reports to him that "the entire city of Detroit recently renounced God" - how difficult can it be! Eventually, David, the older son, returns home blind. Joe flies into a rage and angrily scolds God for "blinding his first-born son." However, Joe just as quickly apologizes to God saying, "Still, I do not renounce you." The test now being over, David's sight returns to him and Joe's family comes home with food his wife won on a game show.
Early on, Joe Benjamin comes clean and tells his family, "Two weeks ago, I had an experience with a man." Clarifying he was referring to Sidney, the man with the big "G" on the front of his sweatshirt, he reveals the tests of faith God has decided to put him though. However, I see something completely different in God's actions and motivations here. After Joe is criticized by his son David for being too materialistic, Joe questions whether the degree of his success is "too much for one man" and says "I'd give it all up to hear David one day say, Thank you, God." Perhaps all Joe's suffering was intended by God to grant him his wish, because after all the ordeals are over and David is asked if he is O.K., he says, "I'm O.K.. Thank God." Showing he has matured, David then tells his younger sister to pull her hefty bag closed and in the next to last line of the play, he says, "God, thank you for sparing my father's life!" So perhaps, it is true that God acts in mysterious ways.
God's Favorite may not be one of Neil Simon's funniest or better-written plays. However, with the excellent cast featured in Studio Theatre Long Island's production of this comedy, you have an opportunity to see and enjoy it in the best possible light. The talented Gary Milenko absolutely shined as Sidney Lipton. He was perfect for the part. Kevin Ganzekaufer, another rising star, appeared in this production as Ben, Joe Benjamin's younger son. He has extraordinary talent, a great stage presence, and a certain charisma, which I feel guarantees a future successful career in the theater. Brooke Barbarino matched Kevin's energy on stage in the role of Sarah, his sister. I did think it a bit creepy, and not funny, that Neil Simon wrote the young Sarah as a teenage girl fixated on the fact that the burglar might rape her while touching her body "up and down with his hands." Angelo DiBiase pulled off Joe Benjamin with just the right balance necessary for the part, and Dolores dePoto, as his wife Rose, perfectly portrayed a Jewish American Princess who was a demanding and domineering spouse. Ravi Tawney was perfectly pitched as David, Joe's troubled oldest son, and RoseMarie Amato did a fine job playing Mady, the live-in housekeeper/maid.
God's Favorite plays through July 10, 2016 at Studio Theatre Long Island. Tickets cost $25.00 each and are still available for Friday, July 8th at 8:00 p.m., Saturday, July 9th at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday, July 10th at 2:30 p.m. For reservations, call 631-226-8400. To purchase your tickets directly, visit https://www.studiotheatreli.com/