God, many of us have come to realize, when he isn’t hurling monsoons at the people living on the coastal flood plains of Bangladesh just for the helluvit, often loves to disguise himself when he comes to visit as a Puerto Rican steambath attendant in New York. Why? We don’t know. Some, however, can guess. We’ll get to that in a minute or two.
Steambath is a funny, irreverent and sharp-edged filming of the off-Broadway show written by Bruce Jay Friedman. A young man named Tandy (Bill Bixby) wakes up in a steambath. He doesn't know how he got there, and neither do any of the people around him -- an old taxi driver, a gorgeous, somewhat dim-witted young woman (Valerie Perrine), a couple of aging gays, a slob, a gambler who is also a stock broker. The only person in the place who seems to know what's going on is the skinny, Puerto Rican bath attendant (Jose Perez). It slowly dawns on Tandy that he's dead and so is everyone else, except the attendant. Turns out the attendant is God, and the steambath is a holding room while God decides where to send them. He doesn't have a lot of time because there are always new people due to show up at any moment.
God turns out to specialize in lame magic tricks and philosophical chatter. He likes the people to tell about their lives and explain why they shouldn't be dead. They always have reasons. God is skeptical of good intentions, has a load of disbelieving comebacks, and he must keep things moving. Perez is wonderful as a skeptical God with a Puerto Rican accent. Bixby is first-rate as a man who has never done much with his life but who always intended to. And Valerie Perrine does an outstanding job as a sexy young lady sort of unaware of her effect on people. Other excellent actors are in the cast...some of them are Herb Edelman, Kenneth Mars, Stephen Elliot.
Steambath is a dialogue-driven play, and the dialogue is very, very funny. This production was broadcast once by PBS and as far as I know was never repeated. I think it's highly unlikely that the worried suits who run PBS today would ever take a chance on something like this. It has some nudity in honor of Perrine’s breasts and a sprightly gay song and dance. There are funny but strong situations. Mostly, it's food for thought while being skeptical of our best rationalizations.
If you're interested in American theater, the American Theater Archive is the place to look. They've saved a number of plays that appeared on television years ago. This is the only place to go if you're interested in seeing how gripping and sad Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Natwick were in Death of a Salesman (they recreate their stage roles), the incredible performances of Jason Robards and Colleen Dewhurst in A Moon for the Misbegotten, or why Robards was one of the great American actors as he stars in The Iceman Cometh. The Archive is available on DVDs.
But why does God do this to us? Here’s my guess. Just because he can.