Theater & Dance
"Making God Laugh"

By: Sean Grennan
Produced by: City Lights Theater Company
Directed by: Caitlin Papp
Featuring: Mary Lou Torre, Bill Davidovich, Jeremy Ryan, Maria Giere Marquis, Keenan Flagg
Running time: 150 minutes, one intermission
When: November 15-December 23, 2018
Where: City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose
Tickets: $23-$44 (discounts available). Visit or call 408-295-4200

Ryan, Torre, Flagg
Taylor Sanders / City Lights
Ruthie's Fantasia Dip is a standing family nightmare, and source of several good yucks in "Making God Laugh" at City Lights, November 15-December 23, 2018. From left are Jeremy Ryan as Richard, Mary Lou Torre as Ruthie and Keenan Flagg as Thomas.
Excellent cast brings the humor
and the pathos to 'Making God Laugh'
'Warm family comedy'? Grennan's script has heavy messages in mind
November 19, 2018

Mary Lou Torre is brilliant as Ruthie, matriarch of a guilt-suffering American Catholic family, in Sean Grennan's dramedy, "Making God Laugh," at City Lights in San Jose.

Ruthie's husband Bill, and children Richard, Maddie and Thomas, all bend over backward in efforts to please her, but over the 30-year timeline of the story, they mostly all fall short of what Ruthie wants for them.

To be sure, there are lots of jokes. It is a family built on love, really, and the children and the dad all love and enjoy each other, for the most part, despite failing to measure up to Ruthie's wishes.

Ruthie has the plans that, perhaps, bring laughter to God. She is never satisfied, and is the queen of Catholic guilt and passive-aggressive torture. She is, in fact, a monster, although much of the writing about this 2011 play tries to fob it off as a "warm family story."

But, Ruthie has her (quite reasonable) doubts about Richard, who'd been a football star but now bounces from one get-rich-quick scheme to another, lubricated by alcohol. She asks Maddie, who wants to be an actress, "Don't you have to be thin to be an actress?" Only "Father Thomas," her son in seminary, gets her full approval and encouragement, but he has an eventual surprise for her.

Torre fully brings this self-officious Catholic woman to the stage, in a performance to admire for the quality of her acting. She rebuffs her husband's modest efforts to get her to dance, because she wants everything perfect when their grown children come to visit. She watches Richard and Maddie like a hawk, for every imperfection, but dotes lovingly on Thomas.

The play is in four scenes across two acts. Thanksgiving 1980, Christmas 1990, New Year's Eve 2000 and spring of 2010. There are lots of amusing time references to make them real, including Richard's salmon-colored AMC Pacer. "It has an 8-track!"

Torre takes Ruthie through the years with exquisite acting skill, with some rather clever support from costume designer Melissa Sanchez.

As Ruthie prepares for the first of the hoped-for family photos in 1990, she dons a lacy white mantilla, which deserves a big laugh from those of us who understand what it means — it shows her absolute devotion to being a church lady. As if she was in church, not sitting on the couch with her family.

Over the years, we see her long hair cut and turned gray, and we see her eventually shuffling along in her house slippers, almost lost in her own house.

Torre is surrounded by a good cast, although in the first scene or two the rhythms and blocking were a bit off.

Jeremy Ryan is amusing as Richard, always trying to ride the crest of whatever popular wave he is riding. His early mobile phone is hilarious, as is his panic over Y2K.

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Maria Giere Marquis has a lot of emotional ground to cover, and is excellent as she does so. She delivers some of the show's funniest lines with panache. When Richard insists on wearing sunglasses in the family photo, she says, "That was the year Richard was blind."

"That explains the clothes," adds Keenan Flagg as Thomas, who was solid throughout, as the always gentle, always kind — but witty — brother.

Maddie is always tortured by Ruthie, who wants her to perform from whatever commercial or other acting job she has at the time. Maddie always refuses, until the last scene, when Marquis delivers a lovely reading of "All the world's a stage" from "As You Like It."

Bill Davidovich does some of the show's heavy lifting as Bill, the dad. He is the one who is devoted to Ruthie, and orchestrates his children's efforts to protect her, despite her essential meanness. He sees love in her.

And he is the one who finally stands up to Ruthie, at a key moment in 2000. "It's not up to you," he tells the shocked Ruthie. "You do your best, but birds fly the way they fly."

By the last scene, Ruthie is finally the loving, accepting mother all would want, but only because she has slipped into dementia. Some happy ending, eh?

Sanchez's costumes are the goods, especially for Richard, who seems to catch every fad as it has its turn. Ron Gasparinetti's living-room set was very homey and charming, and altered delicately to traverse the decades. Lighting by Mary Baronitis was very flexible, and helped tell some of the tale. Sound by George Psarras also helped the story along, with New Year's Eve celebrations in the distance, and a variety of phone sounds.

This was Caitlin Papp's first shot at directing a show at City Lights, although she has acted there many times.

Torre as Ruthie explains the play's title: "If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans," saying she think she got the quote from Reader's Digest.

Playwright Grennan has been quoted as saying he got it from Woody Allen. But, Allen undoubtedly got it from an old Yiddish saying: "Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht" — "Man plans, and God laughs."

John Orr is a member of the America Theatre Critics Association. Email him at
Marquis, Flagg
Taylor Sanders / City Lights
Maria Giere Marquis as Maddie, left, and Keenan Flagg as her brother Thomas are the source of much of the family's humor in "Making God Laugh," playing at City Lights, November 15-December 23, 2018.
Ryan, Davidovitch
Taylor Sanders / City Lights
Jeremy Ryan as Richard, left, with Bill Davidovich as his father, Bill, in "Making God Laugh" at City Lights, November 15-December 23, 2018.
Marquis, Torre, Ryan
Taylor Sanders / City Lights
Mary Lou Torre as Ruthie, center, referees a fight between Maria Giere Marquis as Maddie, left, and Jeremy Ryan as Richard. "Making God Laugh" is at City Lights, November 15-December 23, 2018.