How would you react if you thought God had invited himself — or herself — over to your house for dinner? That’s at least the initial premise of Lookingglass Theatre Company’s new play “Act(s) of God,” which tackles big theological questions with a blend of braininess and silliness that should appeal to fans of TV’s “The Good Place.”
The debut playwriting effort from actor and Lookingglass ensemble member Kareem Bandealy, this metaphysically absurdist comedy centers on a family in the near future (April 2029, to be exact) that receives a mysterious item in the mail, which all but one of the relatives reads as a calling card from the Maker of All Things, announcing a visit the following evening.
‘Act(s) of God’ ★★★1⁄2 When: Through April 7 Where: Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Tickets: $40 – $75 Info: lookingglasstheatre.org Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes, with two intermissions
Thus the first of the play’s three acts — Bandealy boldly divides the action with two intermissions, when so many playwrights working today try to avoid even one — suggests a kind of family-style “Waiting for Godot.” Father (Rom Barkhordar), a scriptural scholar with narcoleptic tendencies, and Mother (Shannon Cochran), a drama queen with regrets about what she gave up for family life, open the play listening to a radio report about an asteroid that just narrowly missed hitting the Earth in what would have been an extinction-level event.
Having dodged that potential catastrophe, the parents are anticipating another, as their three grown children are due to arrive for a weekend’s visit. Middle (Anthony Irons), a bit of an uptight overachiever, is bringing his Fiancee (Emjoy Gavino) home to meet the family. Handsome doofus Youngest (Walter Briggs) is next to arrive, followed by Eldest (Kristina Valada-Viars), an abrasive lesbian who’s committed the dual sins of becoming an atheist and an artist.
(Leaving the characters unnamed is a writerly flourish Bandealy might have done better to avoid; the hoops he has them jump through to address each other in strict second-person or refer to one another by an assortment of nicknames serves as more of a distraction than an abstraction.)
Before Eldest arrives, though, the rest of the group has become fixated on the envelope Mother found in the mail, unaddressed and seemingly impossible to open. It demonstrates other special properties, too, enough to lead Mother to declare it a message from God (whom Mother, and perhaps Mother alone among her family, is convinced is also a she.) By the time the daughter walks in the door, the rest of the family has gathered around the envelope to pray.
It’s important to note here the religion practiced by Bandealy’s characters is both completely recognizable and intentionally unidentifiable. The playwright is careful to avoid mention of specific figures like Jesus, Allah or Buddha; the parables threaded into the script reference indefinite individuals like “the supreme apostle” or “the high archangel.” Bandealy is reckoning not with any particular religion but with religion itself — the human impulse to look to a higher power.
So when Eldest casually rips open the impenetrable envelope, like pulling a sword from a stone, we have to ask ourselves why none of the others could break its seal. And why its contents, which appear to Eldest as a blank sheet of paper, manifest to the rest as some kind of illuminated manuscript that reads, essentially, “prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
Whether or not God arrives isn’t quite determined when Act II begins. A guest did show up for dinner, but in a twist on the trope of gods testing their subjects by disguising themselves as beggars (see Jesus’ parable about the sheep and the goats, or the tale of Philemon and Baucis in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses”), Eldest insists that the guest now sleeping in the computer room is just a hobo they fed.
It’s here in Act II that Bandealy’s ideas really start to shimmer, as the members of the family bring out their metaphorical knives in defense of their own disparate worldviews. And director Heidi Stillman and her whip-smart collection of actors give the proceedings a sharp specificity, with or without character names.
Bandealy does succumb slightly to a common malady of first-time playwrights: the urge to use up all your ideas at once. Not everything he throws at the wall sticks — see Cochran’s bitter operatic aria that closes Act I.
But enough of Bandealy’s high concepts do pay off — including a stunning, slow-motion coup de théâtre that plays out over the last 20 or so minutes of the third act — to give you faith in the overall endeavor. At the first intermission, I was still a skeptic; by the play’s end, I was a convert.
Kris Vire is a local freelance writer.