You’ve got it to hand it to Derek Jacobi, the furiously game star of the new Hugh Whitemore play “God Only Knows”: Even panting his way in pajamas and bedroom slippers about John Gunter’s attractive scenic depiction of rural Italy by night (nice cypresses!), the actor makes every moment count. Pressed into the services of an expatriate Briton hotly pursued — and why not? — by the Vatican, Jacobi’s slightly hammy stage smarts turn out to be just what is needed in a play that risks derailment not long after the Jacobi character’s Renault has crashed into a tree.
By now, you’ll probably have gleaned that “God Only Knows” is no ordinary thriller and Jacobi’s Humphrey Biddulph is a far from traditional fugitive. After all, it’s not every evening that offers up a compressed history of Christianity while providing the origins of terms like “heresy” and “orthodoxy” and a mini-discourse on how brain synapses work. (And you thought “Copenhagen” and “The Invention of Love” were abstruse…)
But disseminating information isn’t the same as defining a play, which is precisely what “God Only Knows” never feels like, no matter how valiantly director Anthony Page tries. Playwright and star collaborated together more than a decade ago to memorable effect on “Breaking the Code,” with Jacobi’s quietly shattering turn as Alan Turing preserved in a top-drawer TV version. And yet, its lofty subject matter notwithstanding, this latest work has the whiff of some high-table Oxbridge debate awaiting a transition to real drama.
Besides, it’s awfully hard to sustain an argument when you don’t have two equal sides: Humphrey claims all the best lines as well as most of the dialogue, period. Every so often, Whitemore relegates Jacobi to the sidelines, ceding center stage to the two quarreling couples whose Tuscan holiday is abruptly interrupted one bibulous night by the arrival of a bloodied and frightened intruder.
This turns out to be Humphrey, a sputtering hysteric who claims to have come into possession of a document capable of undermining all Christianity. The resurrection is a myth, asserts Humphrey, alongside the news that Christ existed as a man, not as the son of God. Small wonder, then, that Humphrey is on the run from Rome, his home for six years: The Vatican, as he puts it, “has eyes everywhere,” which makes Humphrey especially keen to have some English-speaking — if skeptical — auditors who can lend him their ears.
The foursome, of course, barely stand a chance, even if you have to be impressed by the actors’ continually engaged listening this far into the West End run (and following a pre-London tour last fall). While one (David Yelland’s Charles Minto) smugly tries to silence Humphrey and another (Richard O’Callaghan’s Vin Coker) determinedly knocks back the booze, Vin’s wife, Kate (Margot Leicester), attempts an impassioned assertion on behalf of faith. (Asking “Doesn’t it frighten you: nothingness?,” she is genuinely moving.) The quietest of the four, Eleanor Minto (Francesca Hunt), eventually gets her chance too, chiming in with a convenient eleventh-hour invocation of “the final judgment.”
Humphrey, however, won’t be swayed from his controversial crusade, as Whitemore piles on the statistics and facts — alongside enough (overwritten) musings on the meaning of life to give even the loftiest pundit pause. You can feel the writing awkwardly shifting gears, from polemic to domestic drama to the kind of paranoid conspiracy thriller rather cheesily suggested by the play’s lowbrow ad campaign. (Whitemore’s last play, the underrated “Disposing of the Body,” navigated genres far more elegantly.)
There’s even an errant phone that suddenly rings as if to cue a cascade of increasingly preposterous delayed revelations. It’s nice to see the West End tackling so potent a topic as faith, but it would be even nicer if one could believe in the play.