The Almighty and his analyst in Israeli Stage’s ‘Oh God’
WATERTOWN — If there is a voice of God in Boston theater, it belongs to Will Lyman, whose distinctive timbre has long resonated beyond local stages as narrator of those “Most Interesting Man in the World’’ TV commercials for Dos Equis beer.
So it’s fitting that Lyman is playing God, quite literally, in the Black Box Theater at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, where he’s costarring with Maureen Keiller in Israeli Stage’s first-rate production of the late Anat Gov’s “Oh God,’’ directed by Guy Ben-Aharon.
The conceit of this wryly incisive comedy is one that Woody Allen might have come up with: God decides to go into therapy. Yes, the Almighty has issues. He has lost interest in his cosmic job and is profoundly depressed. This despondency has a lot to do with the sorry lot he created: namely, us.
“I’m a big nothing,’’ he tells Ella (Keiller), a psychotherapist who has issues of her own (and who initially insists that she doesn’t believe in God). “I created a farce, and my punishment is to watch it, day in, day out, hour by hour. Without being able to jump off a . . . I can’t even die.’’
But there’s something else eating at Ella’s new patient that stretches back thousands of years. The therapist is determined to get to the bottom of that mysterious something else, though she also faces a professional quandary: If she helps to restore God’s powers, might that also bring back the wrath that used to be such a frequent feature of his interactions with humanity?
“Maybe you’ll get a rush of blood to your head again and suddenly decide to destroy, shatter, and annihilate,’’ the therapist frets.
Having established this clever premise, there were so many ways that playwright Gov could have driven her play into a ditch. She could have taken a solemn, heavy-handed approach to her protagonist’s divine dilemma. She could have veered toward cuteness and kitsch, like the 1977 movie comedy with a similar title, “Oh, God!,’’ starring George Burns and John Denver.
What Gov did instead was find a smart balance that allows both the laughs and ideas to land with roughly equal force. Without undermining the droll tenor of the play, “Oh God’’ also makes room for genuine emotion. The divorced mother of a severely autistic, nonverbal son, Ella has a poignant exchange with God about a wrenching crossroads she arrived at a few years earlier.
Founded in 2010 by the youthful and indefatigable Ben-Aharon, who has attracted some of Boston’s best actors to perform in the company’s numerous staged readings, Israeli Stage presented its first full production a year ago: the North American premiere of Israeli playwright Gilad Evron’s “Ulysses on Bottles,’’ whose cast included Lyman.
In “Oh God,’’ the dialogue between the Almighty and the therapist is a fast-moving and far-reaching one, ranging from the creation of the universe to God’s views on some familiar figures (Adam and Eve, Moses, Noah, Abraham) to the characteristics of that curiously inextinguishable phenomenon known as belief. Along the way, “Oh God’’ has fun with the “And how do you feel about that?’’ clichés of psychotherapy. How do you travel down the usual therapeutic paths toward figuring out the root causes of a client’s problems when he never had parents to blame?
Keiller delivers a nicely grounded portrayal of Ella, with nary an overdone moment. After an initially incredulous reaction by the therapist to the presence of the deity in her home office (designed by Cristina Todesco), Keiller lets us see her professional training steadily kick in.
Natty in a blue suit and spit-shined black shoes, Lyman brings his presence, timing, and general air of command to the role while also persuasively conveying the character’s anger, frustration, and broken-on-the-inside vulnerability. In one powerful scene, Lyman summons memories of his shattering turn as King Lear on Boston Common last summer.
The connection between God and Ella that is steadily forged by Lyman and Keiller is believable enough that it’s possible at times to forget the rather substantial difference between the two characters, underscoring a central strength of “Oh God’’: For a play so concerned about divinity, it’s utterly human.
Play by Anat Gov. Translated by Anthony Berris. Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon. Presented by Israeli Stage. At Black Box Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through April 30. Tickets: $35, www.israelistage.com