Sam Shepard, impeccable actor but uneven dramatist, gives us a staunchly Bush-baiting stinger in The God of Hell, an absurdist but not entirely absurd comedy. “Do you know what plutonium is named after, Frank?” asks the plutonium-contaminated Haynes, who produces hideous electric shocks upon physical contact. “No—what?” responds the guileless dairy farmer. “Pluto—the god of Hell,” Haynes informs. “Oh,” Frank replies, “I thought he was a cartoon.” Shepard’s hell is actually quite a bit cartoonish, but even cartoon dogs and gods can bite. A perfectly innocuous Wisconsin farm couple, Frank and Emma—he preoccupied with breeding heifers, she with watering her plants—is first joined by the frightened Haynes, ostensibly Frank’s old friend, escaping from some unnamed governmental crisis into hiding in the farmhouse basement. Presently Welch, a mysterious salesman, part cajoles, part strong-arms his way into the house. He seems to peddle banal stars-and-stripes-bedizened paraphernalia, but is also ominously nosy about the basement. Pretty soon, he subjugates everyone, his insinuating quasi-obligingness transforming into vicious domination, and leading to grotesque disaster. The play is funny all right, but a bit overloaded with studiedly bizarre effects. It is, however, consummately directed by Lou Jacob and superlatively acted by the stolid but eventually cowed Frank of Randy Quaid, the sanely suspicious but ultimately destroyed Emma of J. Smith-Cameron, the wondrously cowering and fidgety Haynes of Frank Wood, and, perhaps best of all, the creepily unctuous and suddenly icily scary Welch of Tim Roth. Good production values also help. And how can you resist the chill of dialogue such as this: “He’s from the government!” “What government?” “Our government.” “I don’t know what ‘our government’ is anymore, do you? What does that mean, ‘our government’?” “That means he knows more than us. He’s smarter than us. He knows the Big Picture, Emma. He’s got a plan.” And so has Shepard: goofy but not Goofyish, not so much Plutoish as Plutonian.
The God Of Hell
by Sam Shepard
At The Actors Studio Drama School Theatre At Westbeth