Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Making God Laugh
City Lights Theater Company
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Jeremy Ryan, Mary Lou Torre, and Keenan Flagg
Photo by Taylor Sanders
As the years come and go over a thirty-year period in the life of one family, many changes occur in the world around them while in the house where the three grown children were raised, many more things stay the same. Twenty-something siblings in 1980 have vastly different dreams—one as an aspiring actress, one as a go-go entrepreneur, and one as a priest in training. But as their oft-critical mother reminds them from a Woody Allen quote she read in "Reader's Digest," "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans." Laugh aloud we the audience will do, many times, as we revel in the decade-by decade holiday gatherings of this family of five. Sean Grennan's uber-popular Making God Laugh (with over ninety productions since its 2011 premiere) at City Lights Theater Company is a delightfully hilarious and genuinely heartwarming romp through the years, 1980-2010.

The doorbell rings while Ruthie continues to fluff pillows and dust the coffee table yet one more time as she is determined that this 1980 Thanksgiving will be—no, must be—"perfect." She and her husband Bill call back and forth on who will get the door (a to be well-practiced over the years) before he finally opens the door to begin welcoming their returning children. Arriving dressed in late-1970s, playboy-cool is Richard ("Ricky" to the family), declaring upfront he is now "Rick," which most of the family (especially Ruthie) flatly ignores to his repeated distress. Maddie wears a massive red bow in her hair, black, fingerless gloves, jean vest, and boots (Ruthie asks, "Is homeless a style now?"). Thomas has that perennial Mister Rogers look and is awarded the proud pronouncement by Ruthie, "Look at my priest," as he enters. Family roles, long set in years past, quickly re-establish themselves, with siblings pulling familiar jokes on each other, rolling their eyes at their mother's cuts and quips (but behind her back, of course), and ready in an instant to push with some jest and some malice each other's hot buttons.

Into a living room that clearly was first decorated in the early 60s with little change since comes Ruthie, bringing Fantasia Dip, "our family favorite," and announcing that this year, "I used Diet Velveeta." As she spoons onto waiting plates a thick, yellow mass of gook that looks like melted Play-Doh, the rest of the family has looks of horror (but always smiling when she looks at them); and the audience howls in laughter to the point of tears. Needless to say, just as the portable record player and albums of Andy Williams will not disappear in the coming decades' family holidays, neither will the Fantasia Dip.

As Ruthie, Mary Lou Torre is the kind of incessantly inquiring, highly opinionated, and yet ever-doting mother any grown child would love to almost hate and hate not to thoroughly love. She follows her own well-established script with each of her kids, having long ago pigeon-holed them into their roles. Ruthie even distinguishes her tone of voice and her entire facial features to match her view of each as she addresses her children. The eyes of Ruthie are a dead give-away of how she feels at any one moment, from hugely proud to completely disappointed, and can also become gun barrels where bulleted glares quickly wound an intended target. Her self-righteousness is openly displayed through all the religious paraphernalia beautifying the living room, and her denial of anything that does not match her world-view can spill forth as a long soliloquy of how much she has sacrificed for this family. Ms. Torre is absolutely perfect for the role of Ruthie—to the point of being almost scary.

Ruthie tolerates but dismisses to the point of almost ignoring altogether her "Ricky," with all his braggadocio and flamboyance. Jeremy Ryan is delicious in a role that allows ham it up in a dozen different, bizarre ways with each passing decade. In the '80s, '90s, and 2000s, his Rick always arrives in a crazy-colored car he believes is way hop but that we in the audience know is soon to be a clunker (remember the Pacer?) He brags of the latest investment that promises to make him a million (anyone put their money on Yugos or Enron?) Rick is a former high school football star who had his fifteen minutes of fame way too early in life. He still sees himself as a hot commodity just waiting for others finally to agree—especially women. But when he describes his approach to dating as "Baby, I'm here for a good time but not for a long time," the entire family joins Ruthie in shaking their heads in disbelief.

Ruthie's hope for a grandchild is on Maddie. Ruthie cannot help but make nagging prods to Maddie like, "Don't you have to thin to be an actress? ... And it wouldn't hurt your social life either." Ruthie wants Maddie to find a husband and keeps suggesting Maddie help her in the kitchen for good practice. But Maria Giere Marquis's Maddie is not about to fulfill those dreams of her mother—for a variety of reasons that will become clearer to everyone, except maybe Ruthie, as the decades pass. Maddie bristles as her mother harps on her weight, her clothes, and her career; but she clearly is also upset that once again she must be ignored by her mother for who she really is. Her exasperations will grow in intensity as the years progress, with a big blow-up between the two clearly inevitable.

When addressing Thomas, Ruthie changes her entire demeanor to a big, warm smile. "There he is; that's my holy child" says it all. Once he is a priest, he can only be addressed in her house as "Father Tom," even by his own family. Keenan Flagg's Tom takes his mother's adoration with a grain of salt while still being the kidding, everyday brother-of-old with his two siblings. He is, of course, more reserved and quiet overall than they, but he will prove over time not to be quite as saintly as his mother will always believe he actually is.

Taking all this in, often silently from his comfy chair, is Bill, the husband who tries to interest his "Lady Bug" in a romantic dance and tries not to look too disappointed when she once again brushes him off. Bill Davidovich has that perpetually awkward, embarrassed look of a more traditional father who was brought up watching "Father Knows Best" or "Leave It to Beaver." He is not sure what to say or how to react when arrows are shooting all around him among the people he most loves in the world. But the heart of Bill is humongous, and his love for a wife who often seems to look at him without seeing him is undeterred, making Mr. Davidovich's husband/father one that any of us would be thankful to have as a member of our own family.

From Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year's to Easter, the family gatherings every ten years occur like clockwork. Twists and turns galore occur in the lives and relationships that still sometimes seem frozen in time, with secrets and surprises increasingly spilling forth—with enough hilarity to send the audience into uproarious laughter. At the same time, with parents who start off in their fifties and progress to their eighties, some changes take place that should have been expected but of course, were not. With those transitions come opportunities for old patterns and prejudices as well as old stances and stubbornness to fade and to transform. And with those, Sean Grennan's play takes a turn for some heart-touching moments and a few tears that this time do not just come from laughing too much.

Caitlin Papp directs this talented, perfectly cast ensemble with devilish gusto and glee, while at the same time allowing the deep-seated (and sometimes almost hidden) love that binds them all together to reign forth. Ron Gasparinetti's scenic design is a hoot with all its touches that cannot help but remind many of the audience of their own parents' homes that never seem to change, with much of the humor and nostalgia also coming from the myriad of anachronistic properties designed by Christina Sturken and Miranda Whipple. Melissa Sanchez not only ushers us through the decades via clothing styles, she does so by giving each of the kids apparel choices that define their latest quirks and fancies (sometimes, those going to the weirdest of extremes). She also ensures that the parents never leave too far behind the way they always dressed when the kids were in fact still kids.

George Psarras fills the air with the music that in this household remains stuck in what the parents liked in their younger years. He also produces soundtracks of the voices and events that define each of the passing decades—snippets we hear as scenes shift from 1980 to 1990 to 2000 to 2010.

What better holiday gift could City Lights Theater Company give to its loyal audience than Sean Grennan's Making God Laugh? Chuckles and sighs aplenty await audiences as they remember the lifeline of their own families—probably seeing moments that look longingly, embarrassingly, and maybe painfully familiar.

Making God Laugh, through December 23, 2018, at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose CA. Tickets are available online at or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday – Friday, 1-5 p.m.