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Yaay! Live theater is back! GOD’S FAVORITE at Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre makes it work and runs through August 8

THE BASICS:  GOD’S FAVORITE, a comedy by Neil Simon, directed by Jay Desiderio, starring Jimmy Janowski, Dave Marciniak, Lisa Hinca, Jeremy Kreuzer, Jacob Marciniak, Bekki Sliwa, and Mary Moebius runs through August 8th with shows Thursdays and Saturdays (dinner at 6 p.m., show at 7:30 with Sunday matinees, dinner at 1:00, show at 2:30) in Bobby J’s Italian American Grille, 204 Como Park Blvd., in Cheektowaga.  For details visit mybobbyjs.com/desiderio-s-dinner-theatre.  Smaller capacity, socially distant, it’s approved by the Erie County Health Department.  Masks are not required when seated at your table.  For tickets call (716) 395-3207.  Runtime: 2 hours with one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH:  Chosen by the director Jay Desiderio after 15 months of lockdown for both its comedy and theme of long-term suffering (yes, playwright Neil Simon makes that work) GOD’S FAVORITE is a lesser-known early-ish play (1974) written, according to the director, after Simon had recently lost his wife of 20 years, Joan Baim, to bone cancer.  It adapts the Biblical Book of Job to 1970s Long Island where rags-to-riches cardboard box manufacturer “Joe Benjamin” is visited by an unusual messenger from God, “Sidney Lipton,” who tells him that Joe is God’s favorite person on earth but that God and the Devil have a wager that, if severely tested, Joe will renounce his beliefs.  “Never!” says Joe.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:  Early on in his career, Simon used to write for television with the likes of Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner, and later his stage writing career carried on the tradition of situational comedies with rapid-fire dialog, punchy retorts, and lots of wisecracks.

In the last Neil Simon comedy at Desiderios in 2019, the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning LOST IN YONKERS (review here) the wisecracks came from younger brother “Arty.”  In GOD’S FAVORITE they come from the oldest child, “David” (Jeremy Kreuzer), but despite the bickering on stage, all Simon plays show a love of family and a celebration of virtue over all of our less desirable human traits.

With good supporting efforts from all, the play is slightly uneven and depends (a lot) more than most on the talents of the two lead characters.

With good supporting efforts from all, the play is slightly uneven and depends (a lot) more than most on the talents of the two lead characters.  Fortunately Jay Desiderio tapped two of Buffalo’s best.  Dave Marciniak has a long history of playing the good-man/father role, whether as “Prospero” (played more doting than usual) in Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s THE TEMPEST or as the upright but unfairly abused “Earl of Kent” in their KING LEAR.

Marciniak’s characterization of “Joe Benjamin” reminded me of Jackie Gleason from the television show “The Honeymooners” (yes, I’m old enough to remember that show) in both New York accent and timing.  If you recall how Gleason, as “Ralph Kramden,” interacted with his wife “Alice” (Audrey Meadows) then you’ll have a pretty good idea of how Marciniak as “Joe Benjamin” interacts with his family.  And if you recall the scenes with the upstairs neighbor “Norton” (Art Carney) you can imagine how he deals with the somewhat slovenly messenger, “Sidney Lipton.”  And, by the way, Lisa Hinca does a great job as “Rose Benjamin,” more ditzy than the sharp-tongued long-suffering “Alice Kramden” but at several moments I thought that “Joe” was going to threaten to send her “to the moon.”

Which brings us to what spins this play into a whole other level, the portrayal of God’s most disheveled messenger, “Sidney,” by Buffalo United Artists favorite Jimmy Janowski, who mostly performs in downtown Buffalo.  Janowski’s comic physicality, very fluid movements (especially for so tall a person), his deadpans, and ability to naturally hold for the laugh are just what this role, and this play, require.  Usually, in the summer, Janowski is on stage for a BUA “Summer Camp” production, but thanks to the shutdown of other venues, he was, as so many other A-listers are, fortunately available.

It’s a hallmark of Neil Simon plays that the dialog seems to ring true to life, and even the set up gags seem believable.

It’s a hallmark of Neil Simon plays that the dialog seems to ring true to life, and even the set up gags seem believable.  That’s a start, but it’s the actors who speak the lines, and here Janowski and Marciniak’s conversations, despite the unreality of the setup, seem real and not scripted.

And, for the record, kudos to Jay and Bob Desiderio for Set Design, along with Light Design, Sound & Lights, and Sound Effects by Brian Cavanagh, Kenneth Leman, and Rob Nuebauer respectively. Stage manager was Diane Saeli.

A few months back we were invited to be part of a small (25 person) test audience for a classical music concert.  After listening to music only through ear buds or a television speaker, for 15 months, the effect of “live” was surprisingly emotionally powerful.  It was, frankly, indescribable.  Here, at Desiderio’s, we were also in a group of 25, also well-spaced, and as the lights dimmed, the feeling “We’re back!” was the similar.  If you love theater, you should take advantage of this show, GOD’S FAVORITE, so that you too can enjoy that “Yesssss!” feeling.

Lead image: Photo (L-R) Dave Marciniak and Jimmy Janowski

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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