For about the first 30 minutes of Naked Before God, playing an initial run through April 28 at the (Inside) Ford Theater, Writer/Director Leo Geter’s funny and irreverent exploration of American culture, mores and politics circa 2012, my experience suffered from a difficulty I associated with facilitating the ‘suspension of disbelief’. While watching the play comfortably frame itself in place and time and within the context of the protagonists lives, and then unfold into a dark and surprisingly deep (if you wanted it to be, because it works on several levels) criticism of fame and power, I was also wrestling with some internal barrier against fully giving in and going with it. As an avid fan of film and theater this wasn’t the norm for me – I’m used to accepting that ghosts walk beside fog draped parapets and give warning to young princes wrestling with uncertainty, or that the daughter of a Vedic god might descend to earth and explore the nuances of mankind’s suffering.
So what was the difficulty in accepting that an adult film actress might be starting a new career as a counter girl at Dunkin’ Donuts while encouraging her son to follow in her sexually uninhibited, if ‘unconscious’ footsteps? Or that she might just seize upon the idea that both of their successes could be parlayed into even greater fame and fortune were they to become ‘born again’ hawkers of holiness?
And why was it so hard to believe that a radio evangelist might be even more cynical about public tastes and values than a couple of porn stars?
Finally it hit me, Geter has doubled back upon the audiences willing submission to suspension of disbelief and turned everything one more time around; he has given reality, comedy and drama one more shake and twist and put up on the Los Angeles stage not a fantastical satire of American sensibilities – no, what Geter was doing on the ‘Inside’ stage was just showing us who we really are. Once I settled into accepting that what I thought was going to be a bit of fantasy was actually a hyper realistic (and funny and extremely clever) look at who WE (the audience, the voters, the worshipful flock) are, I did what I was supposed to do from the beginning – went with it and had an engaging, fun and enlightening experience.
The willingness of the sheep to be shorn, for me, was the essence and the softly stated brilliance of Naked Before God. The point wasn’t that people will try anything to make a living, that they will chase fame, adulation and wealth in any screwball scheme they can dream up and turn their flaws of character and intellect into money and notoriety. No, the point is that we are a culture that accepts their telling us that they are somehow better than us because of their flaws. And we then, surprisingly soon, proceed to elevate them, enshrine them and, along the way, enrich them.
That the funny and sexy matriarch Kristen Burrows (Jennifer Skinner) figures out that providing the masses with spiritual happy endings might be even more lucrative than those of the sensual type at which she has heretofore been so adept doesn’t offer up so much of an insight into her character as into that of the public awaiting her arrival. By implication (OK, it might be inference) the essential oddity and the humor being played out before the audience isn’t that the lunatic mayor of a small town in the hinterlands of American culture and intellectual thought would believe herself equipped to become Commander in Chief and the leader of the free world. And it isn’t that a womanizing scoundrel and debased congressman would position himself as the arbiter of economic and social justice. The comedy, we come to realize, whether of the depraved or of the divine variety, is actually us.
The story takes place in a small home in ‘the valley’, where else? (Set and lighting designer Brian Sydney Bembridge perfectly pegs the look and feel of both the interior and exterior scenes in a way that sustains the sense of place and adds to the tension that builds as the story unfolds. In fact the police helicopter, with sound design by Corrine Corillo, was so well done I figured Bembridge and Corillo must at some point have been on the wrong end of an airborne spotlight. Their work throughout the production deserves credit for keeping the viewer in the story and wonderfully supporting the reality based feel of the production.)
The curtain opens upon a portentous San Fernando day for former pornographic film star Burrows, her aspiring son Duncan (Morgan McClellan) and his pregnant wife Carly (Jen Kays). Skinner’s character is preparing herself mentally for her gig slinging donuts and coffee and Duncan is setting off to ‘audition’ for an amateur porn website with a dream of making $4,000.00 a week that will enable him to take Carly away from her work as a nurses aid off to a remote home in Hawaii, where they can raise their expected child in smog free tranquility.
We can anticipate things are about to go awry when Duncan brings home his new acting partner Nick (Christopher Foley) and Kristen announces she has invited fundamentalist radio talk show host Barry (a suitably ‘swave’ and smarmy William Salyers) over for dinner. Add a couple more unexpected visitors (Larry Clarke as a really well played Vinnie and Aly Mawji as the mysterious and secretive, in more ways than one it turns out, Octavio) with their own psychological and political baggage and the game, and the comedy, is fast afoot.
And of course, there is that helicopter!
Writer / Director Geter has seized upon something important in Naked Before God (aside from the story itself) and it deserves comment. It would be easy and, for LA audiences no less successful, to portray his characters in a mocking sort of manner. Or to vindicate them in a resolution that included their political or monetary triumph over the masses that long for canvases upon which to project their fantasies of sexual or spiritual connection. Geter stays above that and allows his writing and his actors to show us real people: comedic in their simplicity and human in their naiveté. That wise choice creates a much deeper and much longer lasting political statement about the nature of fame and power, and about the individual and cultural forces on which they depend. Because the real comedy isn’t in observing the simplicity or baseness of the ones we elevate to positions of fame and authority; the real comedy is in observing we who do the elevating. Geter accomplishes that with a subtlety that is the essence of artistic persuasion.
Wardrobe design is by Ann Close-Farley; props are by Heather Ho. The production stage manager is Kat Haan. Associate producer is Jen Ludden and Tim Wright is both producer and Artistic Director of the Circle X Theater Company.
The (Inside) Ford Theater is located within the Ford Theater Complex at 2850 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood CA, just off the 101 Freeway, across from the Bowl and south of Universal Studios.
On-site, non-stacked parking is free.
For more information regarding show times, tickets and other information call the theater box office: 323. 461. 3673. Or visit the website: www.fordtheaters.org