While it deals with immortal issues, David Rambo’s play “God’s Man in Texas” is unlikely to linger long in people’s memories. The Old Globe production is pleasant enough, with a sitcomish tone and a likable cast, but the play’s just too insubstantial. There’s an important, and probably unwitting, irony here: This play criticizes big-time religion for being too commercial — hardly an original or controversial claim. Yet Rambo seems so determined to please that “God’s Man in Texas” stays far away from anything but the familiar. The devil, as the saying goes, is in the details, and this is a work that’s anything but devilish.
Dr. Jeremiah Mears (Robert Pescovitz) is an intellectual, up-and-coming fundamentalist pastor who leads a midsize congregation in San Antonio. He’s also ambitious, so when the call comes to serve as a guest pastor at the giant, prestigious Rock Baptist Church in Houston, he’s quick to answer, especially since Rock is seeking a successor to its octogenarian leader, Dr. Philip Gottschall (Robert Symonds).
Mears is politic enough to display the utmost courtesy to Gottschall; he’s also bright enough to listen carefully as the pastor’s gossipy assistant Hugo (Andy Taylor) keeps him informed of all circulating rumors and speculation, and he also takes in bits of advice from the search committee, including the tip that he needs to work on being more folksy.
Gottschall is certainly folksy; he’s also a tyrannical egomaniac who’s been in charge for a half-century. And Rock isn’t just a church, it’s a school, a college, a bowling alley, a dinner theater, two swimming pools, multiple auxiliary organizations and, at the center of it all, a TV show, a weekly broadcast of the Sunday “10 o’clock.”
Rock Baptist Church is, as Hugo lets everyone know, the center of “the Baptist universe.” The crusty but fit Gottschall, who’s kept in shape with push-ups and dry pitted prunes, won’t relinquish control of this kingdom very easily.
There is, of course, plenty of natural comedy in Rambo’s comparisons of religion to showbiz and big business, and to salesman’s platitudes applied to people’s souls — “Get ’em in the pool on Saturday,” says Gottschall. “They’ll be in the pew on Sunday.” But after a while, these one-liners become wearily familiar. There’s wit here — Mears finds himself blessing the “six new bowling lanes and computerized scoring” — but it’s of an obvious, uninsightful sort.
The same can be said for the dramatic elements. The power struggle between Mears and Gottschall is present yet never very heated. Rambo inexplicably allows some of the biggest turning points to occur offstage, and his final climactic beats come off as sudden and unprepared.
Mears has a father issue — his daddy disappeared on him — and Gottschall has a son issue (he doesn’t have one). But these characters aren’t nearly dimensional enough to have us care about their psychological, or even spiritual, health.
Rambo skirts the most controversial elements of the inflexible Southern Baptists, and even the spare religious debate over forgiveness for past sins is lacking in nuance. Bill C. Davis’ 1980s Broadway play “Mass Appeal,” about the relationship between an older and younger priest, had far more substance.
That said, Rambo does an effective job of making the sermons an essential element of the narrative, and Leonard Foglia’s production proceeds rapidly enough to entertain. The performers here are all well cast and make for good company. Robin Sanford Roberts’ set design makes expert use of the small space, and Lewis Brown’s costumes fit in nicely with the heightened flashiness of the environs — Gottschall has a turquoise suit, for example.
But in the end, this still remains a work that’s all surface and no depth.