The War of Woo, written by Emmy and Ringo Award-winning graphic novelist Dean Haspiel, is now enjoying its World Premiere in New York City. The black comedy with serious touches opens with a tensely bizarre scenario: A black man in a prison jumpsuit and a noose around his neck is being interrogated by another man dressed from horns to (presumably cloven) feet in flaming red. Yes, kids: The antagonist is a literal devil– albeit trading the traditional pitchfork for a shotgun and an even more impressive weapon “below the belt”. The entire stage is bathed in red lighting, while ominous music plays. When the satanic character asks the prisoner, “Given a choice of Heaven or Hell, why would you want to go to Heaven?”, he responds, “Because life on Earth was Hell!“– a theme that is explored later in the play. But just as the audience’s collective mind is forming its own idea about just what may be going on here, the surreally unsettling scenario is interrupted when a manically no-nonsense assistant director Enid (Samantha Simone) yells “CUT!“. Yes, kids (again): This is only a movie– a prospective film purportedly based upon a real-life racially charged incident from 1979. Both the condemned man and his horn-y adversary are both actors. The scene further evolves into a very “2022” sense of eye-rolling quasi-reality when Enid asks the openly gay, African American actor Eugene (Alfred C. Kemp) if he can play the role “gayer and blacker”, serving the audience a reminder that somewhere between fantasy and reality, there’s show business. But before you can say “It’s a wrap!”, there’s yet another revelation: The other actor (Christopher Lee) claims to be a bona fide apprentice of Satan, making him a demon playing an actor playing the Devil. Only in Hollywood… As it turns out, this renegade “demon with a heart of gold” has some modest powers: He can bring people back to life. He also has a more-than-modest goal: He wants to merge Heaven and Hell to create some “balance” among humanity. This will be, in his own words, his “masterpiece”. The demon recruits Eugene, Enid and two of Eugene’s buddies, besties Earl (Philip Cruise) and Otis (Seth Gilliam), who have some drama of their own between them. Their long friendship has recently been threatened by a possible breach of the “bro code”– specifically, one of them cheating with the other one’s girlfriend.
Act 2 moves the setting from Earth to Heaven, where God (Olivia Basemen) confesses to Her angelic man Friday (Tad D’Agostino) that She is bored by the distinct LACK of chaos in Her sterile surroundings, proclaiming: “It all went downhill after Big Bang!”. She also waxes poetic on how, much like as with Satan, her image is often abused for ulterior motives– one of many themes in The War of Woo which is oh-so-ripe for further exploration. When reminiscing about Her quintessential lover, She hints, “He rose… and then he fell!” (Two guesses won’t be necessary as to just who that lover may have been.) Sure enough, there’s soon a knocking on Heaven’s door. It’s The Good Demon (who traded his Party City devil costume for a more stylish red paisley blazer) and his newly recruited army of four, ready to present his ambitious idea to God. Can this devilishly handsome hellraiser and the willowy blonde deity come to an agreement?
Playwright Dean Haspiel is a comic book artist, and his artistic proclivities really suit the style of his play. There are many provocative, important themes behind the larger-than-life characters and fantastical settings. Comic books have always been prophetic in their ability to explore serious themes about modern society long before the masses are ready to confront those issues and ideas head-on. Religion is one of those themes explored in The War of Woo. Another comes early on in the play, when two of the characters debate the issue of whether so-called “sympathetic” portrayals of people of color really help the plight of black actors like Eugene and underrepresented minorities in general. Or are they, as one character ponders out loud, merely exploiting the black experience in America? Serious themes also come into play when each of the characters, including God’s winged assistant, get the chance to share their own “worst day on Earth” experience. Those experiences involve pornography addiction, suicide, and mob mentality fueled by internet algorithms (The demon’s description of Hell, with its utter lack of privacy and 24/7 surveillance, sounds a lot like the worst aspects of social media, particularly Twitter.). As if that wasn’t enough, there’s also (Trigger warning…) a graphic discussion of… hemorrhoids!
Eugene, Enid, Earl, and Otis don’t have any superpowers, unless you embrace the idea that “ordinary” humans can often overcome superhuman obstacles in our day-to-day lives on Earth. The chemistry and comedic interactions between the four actors, along with smooth direction by Philip Cruise, make this makeshift family great fun to watch. Indeed, the quartet are more like the Mystery Men from the 1999 movie than The Fantastic Four. The entire cast of The War of Woo take on their roles with joyful verve. As the demon, Christopher Lee is particularly loving his chance to camp it up. As the more mannered God, Olivia Basemen makes an excellent foil; this odd couple can barely contain their Old Testament-style lust for each other. As a reviewer, I feel the same way about this production…
The War of Woo continues Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8PM through October 15, 2022 at The Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, New York City For more information and tickets, visit here.
Prelude to the War of Woo is a cinematic prequel to the play, written by Dean Haspiel. The short film stars Seth Gilliam and Philip Cruise and was directed, edited and produced by Shannon Goldman at Super G Films. Watch it here.
(Art by Dean Haspiel. Photos by Scott Pilutik.)