Each of the four scenes in Sean Grennan's play Making God Laugh ends in a family photograph that's meant to immortalize a moment in time. We're aware of the unspoken purpose of these images: to preserve the illusion of happiness, tidiness, and unity in a memento of forced smiles. It's an awfully Sontagian device, and a relatable one: After all, how many images in your old photo books even hint at things such as depression, discomfort, and discord? We airbrush them out, maintaining only the reality we want.
Yet, in Actors' Playhouse's production of Making God Laugh -- thanks to the direction and a quintet of uniformly superb performances -- each of these frozen fantasies becomes a snapshot of the characters' emotional states at the time of the photograph. The hurt and the longing show through, defiant and truthful, so that we can, perhaps, peer into their souls.
This production is a triumph for Actors' Playhouse thanks to small revelations like those, which help to illuminate the playwright's words and fill the spaces between them with profound humanism. This is an exceptional feat considering that Grennan's play is not of the caliber of Actors' Playhouse's well-chosen regional premieres in recent years. It's not of the caliber of August: Osage County or Other Desert Cities -- works that arrived as diamonds. Making God Laugh can be tedious and rough, but just wait until you see how it can be polished.
The play begins in a family home on Thanksgiving 1980, establishing the characters of matriarch Ruthie (Angie Radosh); her husband, Bill (Peter Haig); and their three children, Richard (Gregg Weiner), Maddie (Deborah L. Sherman), and Thomas (Michael Focas). The narrative continues in ten-year increments: Christmas 1990, New Year's Eve 2000, and Easter 2010, so that by the end we've watched the characters -- and the actors, thanks to bang-up jobs in hair and makeup -- age and mature in more ways than one.
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Grennan loves this concept, and the nostalgic possibilities of it, a bit too much. For much of the first act and a few irritating portions of the second, his script is a repository for lazy jokes about the fads of the periods. In the '80s, it's eight-track tapes, the short-lived AMC Pacer, and Bedazzlers; in the '90s, it's brick-like cell phones, email, the real estate bubble, and the Yugo; and in the '00s, it's Y2K paranoia and the sure bet of investing in "this company called Enron." These pop references are trotted out with shallow irony, allowing us enlightened spectators to share yuks at the characters' expense. Easy setups lead to easier punch lines in the manner of a second-rate sitcom. It's to the actors' credit that they are able to overcome such tackiness.
The costume design, by Ellis Tillman, is also period-ghastly, but it works to the play's hilarious advantage. We see Gregg Weiner in a mullet and boxy sunglasses; then a ponytail, fanny pack, do-rag, and faded Star Wars shirt; and then in military fatigues as an Alex Jones-like doomsday prophet. These details are delicious -- another example of this production excelling beyond the call of duty.