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Theatre in Review: God Said This (Primary Stages/Cherry Lane Theatre)

Satomi Blair, Emma Kikue, Ako, Jay Patterson. Photo: James Leynse.

God Said This is that true theatrical rarity, a sequel. About two and a half years ago, playwright Leah Nanako Winkler gave us Kentucky, a distinctly bumpy wedding of screwball farce and dysfunctional family drama. In it, Hiro, a mass of raw nerve endings from New York -- she constantly boasted about her career as an account executive and her $60K salary -- returned to her old Kentucky home, hell-bent on breaking up the wedding of her sister, Sophie, and, as a bonus, converting her away from born-again Christianity. A woman on a mission, she mostly succeeded in spreading chaos. Also getting into the act were James, the sisters' drunken, abusive father; Masako, their eerily cheerful enabler of a mother; and various friends, lovers, and hangers-on. And, oh yes: The family's cat, played by a human actor, roamed through the action, only to die, and -- in what was meant to be a Beth Henley-style bit of Southern Gothic hilarity -- ended up at the wedding ceremony in a plastic bag.

God Said This revisits this tumultuous clan seven years later, under considerably less frantic, and much sadder, circumstances. Masako is in the hospital, completing a course of chemotherapy, which leaves her exhausted and in terrible pain; despite her suffering, her prognosis isn't good. Hiro is back in town for the first time since the events of Kentucky, and, instead of meddling in everyone's lives, she mostly tries to be a dutiful daughter, keeping an eye on Masako during the day and running around at night with John, a platonic friend from high school days. Sophie is still married, but her relentlessly upbeat, can-do form of Christianity is severely challenged, both by her mother's illness and her own inability to conceive a child. James' cirrhosis of the liver has mysteriously reversed itself; he now attends AA meetings and, when not singing in a karaoke bar, hangs out online with a Facebook group of rock collectors.

They are still a notably fractious clan: Hiro, getting into a screaming match with James over Masako's hospital bed, pulls out a fifth of bourbon and takes a healthy swig, breathing in his direction to rattle his sobriety. Sophie still blames Hiro for everything, especially for adding her to a Facebook group for cancer patients loaded with grim stories of death and dying. (Masako also follows a blog gratingly named Tumor Has It.) Masako, in agony from her treatment, accuses James of giving her cancer, thanks to the stress and suffering he heaped on her over several decades.

But God Said This dispenses with much of the cloying whimsy and fish-in-a-barrel gagging of its predecessor, giving all five of its characters their due. Hiro isn't nearly as sharp-elbowed this time around, and her halting attempts at seducing John are pretty amusing. Masako's relentlessly cheerful tone -- her cancer is a good thing, she insists, because it has brought her family back together -- doesn't seem so bewilderingly eccentric this time out. James' character is still pretty fuzzy -- that miracle cure is hard to credit, and he has undergone a sea change from pathologically violent to cute and grumpy -- but it's easy to understand his very real fear of losing his spouse. Sophie's religion is no longer the easy target it once was, as she struggles to understand how, despite her godly devotion, tragedy has come calling for her and her loved ones.

Best of all, Winkler doesn't seem to be forever trolling for wacky gags. In one of the most remarkable examples of God Said This' sadder-but-wiser style, Sophie is taking Masako to the bathroom when the latter has an accident in the middle of her room. In the wordless scene that follows, Sophie replaces Masako's underpants and socks and the two women briskly and without comment clean up the mess; it's a poignantly understated depiction of the degradation of sickness and the endurance it demands. Just before this, Sophie, trying to comfort her mother, delivers what sounds like one of the Psalms, in which God promises health to the faithful; that none of these things are coming Masako's way is so deftly made clear that it needs no underlining.

In fact, God Said This is superior to its predecessor in every way but one: Where Kentucky had the fact of Sophie's impending wedding to drive the action, the new play is a vehicle without a dramatic motor. Winkler charts small changes to her characters, but mostly this is an evening of sitting around as they attend to Masako. Some problems have carried over: The James-Masako relationship is still waiting to come into focus, especially since James seems like a different person in the two plays. And, as before, when all the shouting is over, all Winkler has to offer is a series of commonplaces, among them the news that you can't go home again and forgiveness is good for the soul.

Morgan Gould, who directed Kentucky, is back again, along with several cast members, all of whom seem to have a better hold on the material the second time around. As Hiro, Satomi Blair is a deliciously sophisticated comedienne, especially in her scenes with John, as it begins to dawn on her that she might have not been one of the cool kids in high school after all. The one-named actress Ako brings some grit to the role of Masako, vividly conveying the horrors of cancer, standing up to James with something like real bitterness, and making a touching eleventh-hour appearance, in a flashback, as her youthful self. With some of the rough edges sanded off the character, Jay Patterson makes James more palatable, even affecting, especially when laying bare his long-secret love for Masako. Stepping into the role of Sophie, Emma Kikue invests her with some spine and a genuinely troubled spirit. As John, a character who seems to exist only to have conversations with Hiro -- on the soaps, he would be called a coffee cup -- Tom Coiner makes some lively appearances, whether boasting about the MBA that makes him such a lady-killer or when blowing his stack over his intractable teenage son.

God Said This also has a solid production design that keeps the action moving. Arnulfo Maldonado's hospital-room set includes playing areas at left and right for when the action moves elsewhere; Ryan Seelig's lighting efficiently manages these transitions. Jessica Pabst's costumes are at their best drawing sharp contrasts between Hiro and Sophie's personal styles. M. L. Dogg's sound design blends all the usual hospital sounds with other effects, including the ambient sounds of a bar and the Dan Hill power ballad "Sometimes When We Touch."

To my mind, we are oversupplied with plays about learning to accept one's difficult and/or nutty parents and siblings and coming to an acceptance of oneself, a concern that seems to obsess American playwrights of a certain age. But God Said This is a relatively painless example of the genre, with some expert actors and real moments of insight. It's not an attraction to go out of your way for, but if you find yourself in the Cherry Lane, you're likely to have a pretty good time. And if you've seen Kentucky, I'll bet you'll be pleasantly surprised. -- David Barbour

(12 February 2019)

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