In Walnut Creek it’s guns, dames, and celestial clerical errors as Act Now! presents Heaven Can Wait, the story of the worst imaginable customer service screw-up.
If you missed the 1978 Warren Beatty film version, which was itself a remake of the renamed Claude Rains outing based on the original play, here’s the story. Joe Pendleton is a pilot just coming into his own as a middleweight boxer. He’s got everything going for him, or as he puts it, he’s “in the pink.” That is, until his plane starts to go down and one of the heavenly Messengers sent to retrieve souls takes it upon herself to claim his, even though it’s not on her manifest. Everyone makes mistakes on the first day on the job, but hers turns out to be impossible to fix in a way that satisfies anyone. Joe makes a big fuss, and Messenger 7013’s boss, Mr. Jordan (the smooth Will Southard), takes it upon himself to rectify the situation, installing Joe’s soul in the body of wealthy industrialist John Farnsworth, freshly drowned by his loving wife and her lover, Farnsworth’s assistant.
It’s an interesting premise, and a funny play. Joe never really gets the hang of his new position, and decides to make poor Farnsworth’s body into a fighter as his would-be killers reel at their apparent failure. There are also mistreated employees who need raises, a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued, and a suspicious police inspector looking for a body he never finds. Heaven’s crew stays on the case, interfering as much as they help, and the elegant Farnsworth living room slowly fills up with jump ropes and punching bags, much to Mrs. Farnsworth’s distress.
The best thing by far about this production is Eric Moore as Joe. Moore, who just played several roles with grace and conviction in the otherwise rather silly SubShakes production of Pericles, Prince of Tyre, is right on target as the pugnacious, goodhearted boxer. Whether he’s playing his beloved sax (badly), planning his next fight, or trying to redeem John Farnsworth’s reputation, Joe Pendleton is absolutely believable. Which is more, sadly, than can be said for much of the cast. Although it’s not clear whether the problem is the dated language of the script, or perhaps a very short rehearsal schedule, several of the actors seemed to have difficulty believing what their characters were saying. I found Mrs. Farnsworth especially unconvincing, although Bette Logan’s transition from hating Mr. Farnsworth as Mr. Farnsworth to loving Joe as Mr. Farnsworth didn’t make a whole lot of sense either. Messenger 7013 sounded as though she was reading her lines solely for laughs, and the maid Mrs. Ames hadn’t, apparently, decided on an accent, so switched between a few. Bill Clemente fared better as Joe’s manager Max, and David Hardie was solid as the skeptical Inspector Williams.
Logistical difficulties — namely set changes and timing of the intermissions — also slow the play down measurably. To improve the flow and enable big set changes without making the audience wait them out, the show would have benefited from a simpler set with fewer things to move. And either rearranging or eliminating one of the intermissions would also have been wise, since the play isn’t really long enough to merit two. The bottom line is that besides a few great performances and an amusing story, this Heaven can probably wait.