In a time when new examples of the government spying on its own people crop up weekly, Sam Shepard’s dark farce “The God of Hell” feels more timely than when it debuted in 2004. Current political similarities aside, the L.A. premiere at the Geffen Playhouse is a superb production. Director Jason Alexander expertly mines the text for every ounce of humor, without sacrificing the show’s ominous undertones. The cast is excellent, nimbly traversing the surreal comedic terrain as it gradually slips into nightmare.
Emma (Sarah Knowlton) and Frank (Bill Fagerbakke) are often isolated at their Wisconsin dairy farm, but some visitors are about to change their lives. The first visitor, Haynes (Curtis Armstrong), is an old friend of Frank’s who seems to be on the run from a secret project gone bad. He’d like to keep a low profile, but the massive discharges of static electricity that occur whenever he touches anyone make that scenario unlikely.
The next, unexpected visitor is the seemingly friendly Welch (Bryan Cranston), who barges into Emma’s living room trying to browbeat her into buying patriotic paraphernalia. However, this is just a cover for his other, more sinister motive.
Considering the serious turn the play takes toward the end, it’s odd that this is perhaps Shepard’s funniest work. Emma is a wonderful comic creation, sympathetic yet hilarious as she obsessively over-waters her houseplants. Haynes is vulnerable yet voluble, and Welch epitomizes the horror of a malignant government official who is simply having a great time as he terrorizes the populace.
It’s not surprising that a known comedy talent such as Alexander should get the maximum value from each joke or gag, such as a recurring cow sound effect, but it’s impressive that he also orchestrates a gradual descent into moral madness — not to mention a lot of pyrotechnics — with assured skill.
Fagerbakke succeeds for most of the production with a low-key humor, but his character’s transition at the conclusion feels forced, which is more of a problem with the play than the actor. Armstrong is terrific as the twitchy Haynes, and is mesmerizing in a chilling exchange about how plutonium got its name.
Knowlton centers the show with her fantastic turn as the initially amiable yet ultimately aghast Emma, combining sharp comic timing, subtlety and dramatic credibility into a fully realized heroine.
Cranston gets the showiest part, and he runs with it. Welch is a hyperactively amusing monster, and Cranston brings him to vivid life in a bravura perf, making a comedic meal of the tragedy of an empty flagpole or delivering a deliciously creepy John Wayne imitation.
John Iacovelli’s Midwestern home set creates a believably domestic vibe, and Christina Haatainen Jones’ costumes complement it, although the Superman apron Cranston gets to wear in one scene is a nicely wacko touch.
Jason H. Thompson’s lighting is almost a fifth character in the show, sputtering and flaring violently to life, reminding the audience that the god of hell can reside in any home, only a shift in perspective away.