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A CurtainUp Review

God of Desire
By Kathryn Osenlund

Dick Goldberg'sGod of Desire, in world premiere by InterAct Theatre Company, places religion in a sexual context, or sex in a religious context, depending on your view. It's an attempt to make a line of thought theatrical.

The story is knee deep in coming-of-age themes: initiation-- both religious and sexual-- searching for identity or life work, breaking away from childhood and parental influence, father-son issues, and re-evaluation of values. In the parental department are a deceased, religiously observant, musician father and a non-believing Jewish mother (perfect-for-the-role Nancy Boykin), who finds the religious traditions "contrived and theatrical." A grandfather (a lovable Harry Philibosian) exercises a good deal of influence, as does a surrogate father rabbi, whose own son is a bad apple. Seth Reichgott achieves a fine balance in his portrayal of the fair-minded Rosenberg. Edward, the young protagonist, who loves his male forebears and his mentor, is on a quest, and he will react against the patriarchy when he finds expression for his spiritual passion.

Jason Liebman gives a convincing and sensitive portrayal of Edward, who complains that things in his life keep bleeding into each other-- meaning his spiritual quest, his elders, and his lovemaking. He tries to separate them, even sequestering himself for awhile in a strict yeshiva to cool the fires of sensuous gratification and concentrate on seeking the spirit. However, this is a young man who finds sexual release even from a religious book or medal and has difficulty reconciling his longing to experience God and serve others with his desire to experience the newfound joy of sex and the ecstatic oneness it can bring. The somewhat under-written role of his girlfriend, Evelyn, is played by Lori McNally with perky enthusiasm.

Ben (Michael Nathanson), a friend, often narrates the proceedings, supplying entertaining explanations and smartass commentary. Nathanson is in his element in the role as he mediates between the play's ideas and their extrapolation from the audience point of view. As an intermediary Ben opens the door to admit various reactions, humorously citing "celestial cojones" and asking if Edward is a prophet or a profligate.

The play is a thesis on the idea of transforming the profane by merging it with the sacred. Edward tells God that he wants to "feel the joy and goodness and ecstasy that are you." . When he finds his answer, his personal revelation, in the joining of his two "magnificent passions," he comes to believe that he has unveiled a mystery and that his realization is to be his sought-after gift.

In Judeo-Christian traditions, while it is acknowledged that God lives within people, there are prescribed, conventional ways to address and experience God. When this polemic play comes down on the side of direct experience, it appears that this is not just an intellectual exercise for the playwright but that Edward's solution is one he condones.

Set decoration and lighting design are minimal. There is a white backdrop of some sort, whether it represents a scroll or perhaps a shawl is hard to say. Books and a few pieces of furniture dot the stage; but what really works is the configuration of the space, which dovetails seamlessly with Seth Rozin's direction. In fact, the direction is so spot-on that the play's problems seem less serious during performance. While the work is a too wordy, character-embodied argument, Rozin sustains a tension and keeps a forward momentum.

It would be good to hear a whole lot more music integrated into a production where the main character's admired father was a musician and the young man says things like, "I was the violin and the music was full and rich and soaring..." One inconsistency that surfaces, among a few others which I won't address here, is that while Edward desires to discover what God wants him to do to help others, he seeks his answers solely through narcissism rather than through altruistic channels. There's also an underlying problem in treating the character's idea -- to experience unity with the divine physically -- as new. What may be new is placing Edward's problem and solution within the context of the rituals of Orthodox Judaism. His solution probably is shocking to Orthodox Jews, as it would be, say, to devout Catholics, if the story were set within the context of rituals of the RC church. As for the others in a modern audience -- non religious types and those cognizant of ancient pagan religious traditions and contemporary, particularly Eastern or Goddess, spiritual traditions in which sexuality, "sacred pleasure," is a requisite for spirituality -- Goldberg's solution would pack no shock.

Though this is a play about ideas which are neither new nor sound in the context in which they are presented, there is, however, very good dialogue mixed in with some impossibly inflated lines. The direction and acting are just fine. In the end the theatergoer is left with questions and opinions just ready to spill out. This fact argues that the production provides good conversation fodder -- not a bad thing!

By Dick Goldberg
Directed by Seth Rozin

Cast: Nancy Boykin, Jason Liebman, Lori McNally, Michael Nathanson, Harry Philibosian, Seth Reichgott
Set Design: Tim Dugan
Lighting Design: Peter Whinnery
Costume Design: Karen Ann Ledger
Sound Design: Matt Callahan
Choreographer: Karen Getz Running time: 2 hours with one 15 min intermission 5/07/04- 6/06/04
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 5/12 performance by InterActTheatre Company at the Adrienne Theater (Sansom St.)
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