Theater Review: “Oh God” — An Audacious Israeli Comedy

The late playwright Anat Gov’s play about wrestling with life and God is an outrageously provocative script that showcases the best of contemporary Israeli art.

Oh God by Anat Gov. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Produced by the Chester Theatre Company in partnership with Israeli Stage in Chester, MA through July 24.

in the Chester Theatre Company/Israeli Stage production of "Oh God."

Maureen Keiller as Ella and Will Lyman as God in the Chester Theatre Company/Israeli Stage production of “Oh God.” Photo: courtesy of CTC.

By Helen Epstein

If you are interested in theater that engages with ideas and in understanding how many in the Israeli artistic community view life today, you could not do better than see Oh God, the audacious comedy now at Chester Theatre Company in partnership with Israeli Stage.

This risk-taking two-character play revolves around a desperate, despairing God (male) and a divorced (female) psychotherapist with an autistic son whom He visits in her well-appointed consulting room. I first saw a reading of the play in Boston in 2013 and my colleague Ian Thal saw and liked the full production in Boston this spring. I was interested in seeing it on a summer week-end when the gulf between fundamentalists and secularists seemed wider than ever, and I was in despair about rampant violence everywhere.

I can report that the late playwright Anat Gov’s play about wrestling with life and God is an outrageously provocative script that showcases the best of contemporary Israeli art. Ms. Gov, who died of cancer at 58, was born in 1953, a graduate of the famous Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts and one of the Israeli military’s best entertainment troupes. She was briefly a student in Tel Aviv University’s theater department. She dropped out to become a successful playwright and television writer, wife of a well-known Israeli entertainer, mother of three and grandmother of two.

Like every Israeli, Gov studied the Old Testament as literature in school. As an adult, she funded Kolot Torah, a study institute for secular and religious Israelis. Her last play was the unusual and autobiographical Happy End. That similarly outrageous play — which I hope to see in some form — is a musical about an actress who has terminal cancer, refuses treatment, and makes her own decisions about the terms of her death. “I realize it’s possible to live with cancer,” declares the autobiographical heroine, “but if I’d wanted to live with an offensive and devious leech that saps all my energies, I’d have stayed married to my husband.”

The dialogue of Oh God (in an exceptionally good translation by Anthony Berris) is, for the most part, as blunt, but far more intellectual — religious, cultural, and Old Testament references are mixed into ordinary situational dialogue. After He arrives in psychologist Ella’s office and Ella asks Him the usual questions, God is evasive.

“Do you want to tell me how old you are?”
“5776,” he replies. “Last fall.”

This allusion to the Jewish calendar as the answer to a routine therapy question is just one of dozens of such pleasurable lines in Gov’s richly literate script. Later on, Ella compares God to an abusive husband, violent toward his Chosen people, who he abandons after his last conversation with Job. “Four hundred years of slavery,” she reminds him, “Forty years in the desert, two thousand years of exile!”

Now to this production. The beautiful set by Cristina Todesco skillfully evokes the airiness and greenery of a contemporary Tel Aviv shrink’s office (modern bookshelves filled with books, toys and objects, hanging plants that extend out over the audience).

Boston area veterans Maureen Keiller (Ella) and Will Lyman (God) have been performing this play in readings and in full production over the years, and they have grown into their roles. They play well off one another and display a deep understanding of their characters.

Keiller, costumed in boots, a modish, layered skirt and an elegant shawl, is convincing as the confused, harried, Everywomanish therapist trying to make sense of and find meaning in a difficult life. She evokes all the women therapists I’ve ever known.

Will Lyman, tall, slim, and measured, makes for an elegant God. Both actors speak their lines impeccably, so that every word is intelligible. This production’s focus on the text is so narrow, however, that I often wondered why the director had chosen not to do more than what seemed to me a somewhat fleshed-out reading.

About halfway into the show, I began to tire of merely watching God and Ella converse. I wanted more drama, more movement, more gesture, more use of the stage. When God cried, I was surprised that Ella made no move to offer him a tissue from the box on her table. Surely a director would seize this opportunity for stage business and attempt to match the audacity of the play? While realism would dictate that a therapy session respect the conventions of the consulting room, Gov defies convention in her script. I wished that director Guy Ben-Aharon had taken some more theatrical risks.

Those reservations aside, I was pleased to revisit Oh God and recommend it to theatergoers who like their dramas about serious matters amply leavened with wit. I also hope to catch a reading of Happy End as Israeli Stage does more readings of Gov’s work.

Helen Esptein reviews summer theater in the Berkshires. Her books can be found here.

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