Annette O’Toole is excellent as a scholar in “The Good Book” onstage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. (Courtesy Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre)

Berkeley Rep’s ‘Good Book’ a jam-packed look at the Bible

Three-hour play edifies, entertains

The Bible, says biblical scholar Miriam Lewis — one of the two main characters whose bumpy interior journeys we follow in “The Good Book” — is dangerous, so we better learn about it.

If it is indeed dangerous it’s hard to ferret out exactly how so, amid the dense, intellectually challenging material that comprises this (overlong) three-hour play, a collaboration between acclaimed actor Denis O’Hare and Berkeley Repertory Theatre associate director Lisa Peterson. (The pair’s work was last seen here at Berkeley Rep in their adaptation “An Iliad.”)

Funny, at times electrifying and always edifying (if also overstuffed with TMI), “The Good Book” is more entertaining than you might imagine. And the acting (by a multicultural seven-member cast that includes some locals), Peterson’s direction and the design (Rachel Hauck’s set; Mark Bennett’s sound), are all terrific.

After a didactic and disorienting prologue, two main, and unrelated, characters emerge, both of whom turn out to be deeply engaging.

There’s “Biblehead” Connor (played with great simplicity and sensitivity by Keith Nobbs), a highly imaginative, lonely gay kid who wants to be a priest and who, as he gets older (we follow him into adulthood), begins to feel that God hates him. “I’m a sinner,” he moans.

And there’s brilliant Miriam (the wonderful Annette O’Toole), an angry “new atheist in love with the Bible,” especially its poetry; she says she studies the Good Book to learn about herself. But when her long-distance soul-mate (Elijah Alexander, finessing multiple roles) suddenly confesses he’s become a Christian, her world implodes.

Through Miriam’s lectures to her college classes, and other theatrical devices, including hilarious biblical reenactments (and appearances by everyone from King Solomon to the Scottish King James of motel-room Bible fame, who materialize in Connor’s bedroom), we get a crash course on how the Bible has been written and rewritten over the centuries by various people, including hordes of hard-working, nameless scribes.

We also get a smattering of ancient history, some pointers on the differences between the two testaments and much more.

Whether you’re a devout believer (like the fictional Connor), a confident atheist (as O’Hare is) or somewhere in between (or if, as one of the characters accuses Miriam, you’re jealous of the believers), it’s likely that you’ll find yourself thinking, amid the laughter and brain overload, about your own inevitable death.

Dangerous or not, it turns out the Bible is a fine, if somewhat overly ambitious, subject for the stage.

REVIEW

The Good Book

Presented by Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Where: Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays and Thursdays-Fridays, 7 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 8 p.m. most Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes June 9

Tickets: $30 to $97

Contact: (510) 647–2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

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