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Milking America's Angst

'God of Hell' Is Sam Shepard's Cry From the Heartland

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 17, 2004; Page C01

NEW YORK -- It's worse than you imagined, far worse. The government has been hijacked by a demented cabal of sadists in blue suits and red ties who aren't satisfied with torturing inmates in faraway military prisons. They're coming for you now! Well, maybe not you, exactly. But unsuspecting Midwesterners -- farmers in America's Dairyland -- for sure!

The point is, Sam Shepard says in his breathless new live-action editorial cartoon, "The God of Hell," this land ain't your land anymore. Or won't be, in very short order. It's falling into the hands of people who claim to be protecting the country but in fact are poisoning it in every conceivable way.


Frank Wood, left, fears Tim Roth, as a hyperpatriotic government employee named Welch. Welch's arrogance seems to reflect playwright Sam Shepard's contempt for the GOP. (Joan Marcus)

Sounds as if Shepard is mighty ticked off, doesn't it? In "The God of Hell," which opened last night in a tiny theater in the West Village, the author of "Buried Child" and "True West" is not merely speaking out, he's shouting at the top of his lungs. And while the premise has a funny setup -- largely due to the resourceful performances of Randy Quaid and J. Smith-Cameron -- the pleasing vehemence of Shepard's outrage wears more than a little thin. "The God of Hell" is a shrill cry from the heartland.

A wildly miscast and over-the-top Tim Roth, playing some sort of smarmy hyperpatriotic government employee, is the chief culprit here. This English actor drains the play of any claim to authenticity: Why would this grinning capitalist tool, who hawks sugar cookies decorated with the Stars and Stripes, and then staples American flags all over a Wisconsin farmhouse, have a British accent? (The only way this makes sense, one supposes, is you think of Roth as reinforcing the idea that the policies of the current administration do not represent anything like the ideals of the "real" America.)

Even middling Shepard can be fun, however, and for a spell "The God of Hell" is a pleasant bit of agitprop. It mainly concerns the alarming interruptions in the rural routine of Frank (Quaid) and Emma (Smith-Cameron), dairy farmers whose prized possessions are the cows and heifers on which Frank lavishes an inordinate amount of attention. The couple is as close to salt of the earth as "The God of Hell" gets, though Shepard also makes clear that the kind of farming they practice -- involving odd-sounding accouterments such as "protein licks" and "steroid tags" -- hardly qualifies as wholesomely organic.

The play is rife with references to the twisting of what is natural, and no one seems more twisted than Haynes (Frank Wood), an old friend of Frank's who has made his way to the farm and taken refuge in the basement. Aside from a strange reluctance to explain what he's been up to, living somewhere in Colorado -- he's made only vague references to doing "research" at a place called Rocky Buttes -- Haynes has a peculiar condition. Whenever he's touched, he sets off high-voltage electrical charges.

As staged by Lou Jacob, the scenes in which Haynes dodges Emma's prying questions while sparks shoot from his hands capture the feel of Shepard plays of old: the mundane and bizarre commingle in absurdly amusing ways. The setting itself is textbook Shepard, a shabby kitchen and living room with a 1950s refrigerator and a ratty couch. It conjures the world of American have-nots.

We learn that Haynes is running from someone, and that someone turns out to be Roth's Welch, whose toothy smiles reek of disingenuousness. He's an emissary of some sort from the people in power, and his arrogance seems a reflection of the contempt Shepard feels for the party that just won the election. "We're in absolute control now," Welch observes. "We don't have to answer to anyone now." Though Welch says everything through those menacing canines and bicuspids, the brutal nature of that supposed absolute control is soon made apparent, in a scene that intentionally evokes images of the treatment of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Wood is fine as the weird houseguest, and Quaid looks and sounds every inch a cow-loving hick who's easy prey for a glib G-man. Smith-Cameron is terrific, too, as a corn-fed American homemaker who's used to cleaning up barnyard messes but unable to decipher the messy political landscape that suddenly intrudes on her quiet life.

With "The God of Hell," Shepard joins a growing list of dramatists -- A.R. Gurney ("Mrs. Farnsworth") and David Hare ("Stuff Happens") among them -- who are using the pulpit of the stage these days to express revulsion over the direction in which this country seems to be headed. The play capably conveys Shepard's anxiety. But the alarm bells it rings make more loud noise than good theater.

The God of Hell, by Sam Shepard. Directed by Lou Jacob. Set, David Korins; costumes, Ilona Somogyi; lighting, David Lander; original music and sound, Lindsay Jones; fight director, J. Allen Suddeth. Approximately 80 minutes. Through Nov. 28 at Actors Studio Drama School Theatre, 151 Bank St., Manhattan. Call 212-279-4200.


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