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In her home office, Israeli psychologist Ella (Kimberly Schraf) listens lovingly as Lior, her teenage son (Sean McCoy), plays the cello. However, the moment the instrument leaves his hands, he transforms: Fingers that could hold the bow and press strings with delicate precision, curl; limbs that cradled the cello twist, and where his notes were once clear and in-tune, his vocalizations are strained and inarticulate. The young man is autistic and though he seems to understand some of what his mother says, he is entirely non-verbal, and unable to fully process his own emotions.
Ella must interrupt the recital because a mysterious new client will soon arrive. Since the audience is likely already in on the late playwright Anat Gov’s comic premise of God (Mitchell Hébert) seeing a shrink, there is laughter rather than absurdist angst when Ella worries the omniscient client who is reluctant to give his name is a Mossad spymaster or Shin Bet officer who has had her investigated prior to the appointment.
God is depressed, experiencing suicidal ideation, and this means destroying the entire world that believes in Him.
Ella (who insists she is named for the pistachio tree, and not the Hebrew word for “goddess”) has a single therapy session to unravel the troubled relationship between God and humanity. Because the play is set in Israel, even a secularist like Ella who claims not to believe in God yet is nonetheless deeply angry with Him, is sufficiently educated in the Bible. She analyzes not just the moment He created Adam, but family dynamics throughout Genesis, and unpacks His final speech in the Book of Job and why He has been silent ever since. (However irreverent Ella’s take, Gov’s God is the God of Judaism.) Her questions are less the classic theological puzzle of how evil can exist in a universe with an omnipotent creator and more the about the figure that appears in scripture, often testing His favorites and sowing discord between brothers from generation to generation, while also speaking of compassion and love.
Schraf and Hébert have great comic chops, and know how to inflect a laugh line, but their performance is overly broad considering Gov’s script is also addressing some substantial theological questions. Ella’s psychoanalytic and feminist examination of both her patient and the Bible are not just snarky; they’re a serious inquiry into the nature of violence and abuse that permeate our culture on both the personal and geo-political scale. The take-down of the deity as an abusive male is not without empathy, however. The translation by Anthony Berris and Margalit Rodgers keeps a proper balance between the many one-liners on one hand and the serious drama of theological speculation and moral outrage on the other. At times, director Michael Bloom seems to have some trouble striking that balance, and too often defaults to the tonality of a workplace sitcom at moments when more gravitas is needed.
McCoy’s performance as Lior is admirably vulnerable (the seeming authenticity probably owes much to work with Special Needs Consultant Dana Gillespie) and he brings out some of Schraf and Hébert’s best moments on stage during his brief appearances, including a silent interaction between the teenager and the Eternal. One of the best choices in Mosaic’s production was to restore Lior to the play—he had been excised in the play’s American premiere at Boston-based Israeli Stage when I reviewed it in 2016. Lior’s inability to communicate provides a powerful counterpoint to God’s own troubled relationship with humanity.
Set designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson dresses the otherwise nondescript psychologist’s office with a few idiosyncratic touches: an almost expressionist painting of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil by Lior, and the Jerusalem stone of the patio garden just outside the office, while also cleverly concealing a few magic tricks (or miracles). Lighting designer Brittany Shemuga captures the passage of the late-afternoon sun reflecting on stone, trellises, leaves, and vines.
Mosaic Theater Company’s Voices from a Changing Middle East Festival exposes D.C. audiences to an Israel that exists outside foreign policy issues. This production is not perfect, but given that Oh, God is one of Anat Gov’s more challenging works, it’s worth checking out.
To Jan. 13 at 1333 H St. NE. $15–$65. 202-399-7993. mosaictheater.org.