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God & Mr. Smith

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If you can't imagine a paperless office, don't even think about a paperless world. Playwright Travis Baker did, however, and the result is God & Mr. Smith, an uncomfortable and uneven comedy being presented by the Kaleidoscope Theatre Company.

God & Mr. Smith preys on just about everyone's worst fear in the modern, technology-profligate world: What would happen if all electronic record of your existence just, one day, vanished? That's what happens to John Smith (Jim Wisniewski), who takes his case to the ominously-named Department of People. He wants to be "found," but has trouble convincing anyone there that he's missing. After all, this never happens, and computers can't make mistakes, right?

The technological issues of the concept are of little interest to Baker - he's more interested in using God & Mr. Smith to examine the declining state of human interaction as a result of this technology. John becomes less real in the eyes of his wife (Birgit Darby) and parents (Lucy McMichael and Dan Snow), and more real in the eyes of the young secretary at the Department of People, Steph (Najla Sad), who is finally able to put a face with the number she deals with daily.

John's friendship with Steph - an aspiring actress of questionable talent - is the most fully-formed relationship in the play, and their scenes (in the late first act and early second act) are the strongest in the show, suggesting pockets of order in the realm of chaos into which John has fallen. But it proves insufficient to really anchor the story; Steph is still a supporting character. Everyone must revolve around John, be seen through his eyes. So, a down-on-his-luck mailman (Todd Allen Durkin) seems particularly insane, a man in a diner (Michael Nathanson) who gets into a fight over a piece of bad cherry pie goes particularly ballistic and so on.

But there's nothing to grab onto, no characters other than John to care about. Then there's the predictable penultimate scene when pleas for understanding and a return to a community of trust between people, and a belief that paper transactions are as worthwhile as electronic ones, are espoused, with equally foreseeable results. Marshall Mays's direction is sharp and efficient and the design (Scott Aronow for sets, Anthony Catanzaro for costumes, and Michael K. Berelson for lights) effectively sparse, but real emotion is just too absent from the play for it to have a serious dramatic effect.

Under the circumstances, Wisniewski does a good job of portraying the man against the machine, but never generates a great deal of sympathy, and Sad's performance is fine, if a bit scattered. The most exciting work comes from Nathanson, who, in addition to the "cherry pie man," plays the riotously egotistical and serious downtown actor, author and star of the play in which Steph is currently appearing. (The few moments of it that we see, from climactic scene to curtain call, are the most brazenly successful in the entire production.)

God & Mr. Smith is nothing if not well intentioned, but Baker doesn't take his own warnings about the dehumanization of people in the face of overwhelming technology seriously enough to make them relevant to us. If ever subject matter cried for wall-to-wall comedy, the story of God & Mr. Smith is certainly it. And while Baker does his best to provide that, the story also demands a strong shot of reality to provide the jolt that, in this production, is lacking.

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Kaleidoscope Theatre Company God & Mr. Smith Running time: 2 hours with one intermission Mint Space, 311 West 43rd Street, 5th Floor Schedule and Tickets: (212) 352-3101