Have a little faith in "God’s Favorite"
In between AP testing, year-end projects and finals, a group of students at Park City High School (PCHS) has something to look forward to: hanging out in silk pajamas and eating Hawaiian pizza.
The ritual has become an almost-daily tradition for the cast of the drama department’s spring production, "God’s Favorite."
The play, a comedy by Neil Simon, is a modern tale loosely based on the biblical Book of Job. It tells the story of Joe Benjamin, a wealthy businessman whose piety is put to the test when the devil makes a bet with God that he will renounce his faith under the duress of fire, lightening, and physical torments.
Joe, played by junior Devon Maddux, is also a devoted family man. His patience is tested daily by his prodigal son, David (played by Gill Williams); his kooky twins (Tad D’Agostino and Hannah Beal); his high-maintenance wife, Rose (Leah Carlson); and wisecracking household help (Lea Guillory and Drew Kenniston).
The story begins late one night when a mysterious visitor, Sidney Lipton (Noah Cohen), attempts to break into the Benjamins’ Long Island mansion. Declaring himself to be a messenger of God, Lipton warns Joe of the trials that will befall his family and encourages him to abandon his religious zeal.
One by one, each character reveals his or her quirky personality in the wee hours of the morning — hence the silk pajamas. A wife who wears jewels to bed, a son who drinks "to cure soberness," and a pair of misfit twins are just the beginning of Joe’s troubles.
The cast of eight students has been diligently rehearsing over the past month to perfect the dry wit and deadpan humor that characterize Simon’s work.
Dana Durbano Keiter, who stepped in as the drama teacher at PCHS earlier this year, is directing the production, which premieres Thursday, May 13, at 7 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre at the high school.
The play marks Durbano Keiter’s first time directing a PCHS production, although she’s certainly no stranger to theater in Park City. She served as artistic director and Youtheatre director at the Egyptian Theatre for a total of 13 years.
"I’ve been around long enough that they didn’t scare me too badly," she says of working with high-school students.
When faced with selecting a play for the drama department’s spring production, Durbano Keiter says she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. "I had to get to know the kids and their talents first," she explains.
Her students wanted to do a comedy rather than a drama, which is the norm for the spring show. "Comedy is hard," Durbano Keiter says. But once they started rehearsing "God’s Favorite," she knew the cast could master the play’s difficult comedic timing and delivery.
"I have been pleasantly surprised," she says. "They’re very talented. They’ve risen to the occasion and I’m very proud of them."
Maddux, who plays Joe Benjamin, says his role is challenging because of the intensity of his character’s religious piety. "It really does put me in a different state of mind," he says.
Although he wasn’t familiar with the play before taking on the lead role, he has come to appreciate its humor and message. "The script itself is interesting because there are small nuances throughout that bring the show to a whole new level," he says.
Cohen, who plays the messenger of God, says that the dialogue and characters’ personalities are the crux of the play. "It’s very different," he says. "The characters are genius and the dialogue is really funny."
One character that is sure to become an audience favorite is the sarcastic, surprisingly witty son, David Benjamin. Williams, a senior, dons ridiculous outfits and adopts a drunken swagger throughout his performance as he ridicules his father’s God-fearing ways and his ostentatious displays of wealth.
Williams says that because "God’s Favorite" is a lesser-known play, the cast members have more freedom to improvise and add their own styles to the characters. "We can kind of make it our own," he explains.
One thing the students are apprehensive about is whether the title and religious content might deter some people. Even though the central theme is religion, the message is up for interpretation, says Beal, who plays one of the twins. "There are a lot of different ways you can take it," she says.
"Whether you agree with the message or not, you can take it how you want," Williams adds.
Many of the cast members plan to study acting either as a primary or secondary concentration beyond high school. Working with Durbano Keiter has been a positive experience both in the classroom and on stage. "She lets us figure it out. She knows how to guide us," says Beal.
"We have a great privilege of working with such a professional director in high school," says D’Agostino, the other twin.
Unlike the fall musical production of "Kiss Me Kate," which many of the cast members acted in, "God’s Favorite" will be performed in the Black Box Theatre instead of the Eccles Center.
The space gives the play a much more intimate feel, Beal says. "It’s a different kind of performance you have to be so much more real to make it translate."
Being so close to the actors will also give the audience a sense of how close the cast has become and why they spend most weekday evenings noshing on pizza like sorority girls at a slumber party.
"We’re our own little unit," says Williams. After stressful days of classes, studying and future planning, rehearsals have become a much-needed release. "It’s almost like everything else is stuff we have to do, and this is something we get to do," he adds.
Performances are May 13, 14, 20 and 21 at 7 p.m. in the Black Box Theatre next to the Eccles Center at Park City High School. Tickets are $5 for students and children and $8 for adults and may be purchased at the door. For more information, contact Durbano Keiter at email@example.com.
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