“That kind of angry doesn’t come from staying home on Sunday mornings,” says Sheila, who works the night shift with young Drew in the world premiere of 1812’s anemic The God Project.
I’m not a pastor’s kid (PK), like God Project cowriters and costars Jennifer Childs and Sean Close, but I was certainly ready to sympathize with Sheila’s take on anger. Chapel five days a week, daily religion classes, and church on Sundays from first grade through high school. Endless soporific sermons from bearded men in white robes, standing for desultory hymns, hard old wooden pews cracking like a faraway gunshot if you shifted your weight from one numb cheek to the other.
The codified misogyny and homophobia, the sexual repression, the exultation of abusive gender norms: when it comes to my upbringing in an insular Christian faith, I could go on.
The God Project, however, does not.
Religion at work
Co-creators Childs and Close told BSR that the piece deliberately eschews “the darker elements of spirituality” and “rampant cynicism” common in plays about religion. But if you’re going to keep your religious themes light, at least give me some incisive jokes or unique dramatic stakes rather than the gentle, righteous ribbing (“language!”) that pervades this two-hour script.
Sheila (Childs) and Drew (Close) work the night shift in the stockroom of a blue-and-yellow Scandinavian furniture giant that sends its customers home with boxes full of boards, screws, and inscrutable instructions. They’re both PKs. Sheila lost her job at her family’s church, longs to be a pastor, and whiles the time away by following exhaustive checklists and praying nonconsensual prayers for everyone around her.
Drew has landed in the job after his dream of becoming a singer-songwriter star in Los Angeles fizzles out. He spends his time off in mawkish open-mic performances of his one hit song. His most relatable moment comes when he tries to open a packet of screws and his face immediately grows brick-red with the effort.
Childs gives Sheila a grounded, sympathetic earnesty that raises at least a momentary interest in her hopes. But whether he’s playing a guitar or trying to decipher a pamphlet of wordless assembly instructions, Close’s ceaseless slouchy mugging sucks any appeal out of the story. Joilet Harris provides diverting interludes playing the rest of the show’s roles, including Val, a genial and strangely omniscient manager—plus some vocals that help make up for Drew’s twanging.
The play does leave some nagging questions. Why does Sheila, for all other appearances a person invested in accuracy and caring, conspicuously insist on mispronouncing her coworker’s name? Why is a furniture store running an exhaustive monthlong slate of Easter events?
At least Colin McIlvaine serves up a marvelous set, with imposing towers of countless rectangular boxes whose weight you can almost feel, complete with bar-code stickers. The shelves pivot deftly to change the scene, including a perfectly janky little staff room.
The darker side
But maybe the play does plumb the darker side of the patriarchal culture so beloved of most religious traditions, with the story of a shambling man-child who finds inspiration for his unironically awful singer-songwriter shtick, thanks to the patient support of a lonely, quirky woman who’s been cast out of her only goal in life.
The opening-night audience of stalwart fans had an enthusiastic response, but most theatergoers looking for a thoughtful diversion on friendship, work, and faith won’t get more than a few anodyne chuckles.
What, When, Where
The God Project. By Sean Close and Jennifer Childs, directed by David Bradley. Through May 19, 2019, at Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia. (215) 592-9560 or 1812productions.com.