An Act of God
Jim Parsons plays God in David Javerbaum's debut Broadway comedy.
For the second time in recent memory, Broadway audiences pay for the pleasure of watching a gaggle of actors take an onstage selfie (the first was in the star-studded It's Only a Play). Has Broadway theater finally devolved into its basest essence — a forum in which we celebrate celebrities celebrating themselves? It certainly seems that way in David Javerbaum's An Act of God, now making its world premiere at Studio 54. This quippy, ultratopical, in-no-way-durable monologue features stage and screen star Jim Parsons playing the biggest celebrity of all time: God.
The show is based on Javerbaum's book The Last Testament: A Memoir by God(which was based on his Twitter account, @TheTweetofGod). In that tell-all, "God" sets the record straight on certain misconceptions (he hates Sarah Palin, loves the gays) while expressing his love of shows like Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Godspell, and Caroline, or Change (in addition to serving for many years as the head writer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Javerbaum is a graduate of NYU's musical theater-writing program). It's no surprise that this is the God that would land a gig on Broadway.
That's not to say he's a touchy-feely coastal liberal. Over the course of this 90-minute chat with the creator of the universe, we get to know him as a jealous and wrathful deity (on the issue of abortion, he identifies as "anti-life and anti-choice"). He describes the Book of Job (about the suffering of a good man) as "the funniest book in the bible."
Taking his cues from the script, Parsons gives the most truthful portrayal of the God of Abraham I've ever witnessed (apologies to George Burns): He's vain and cruel, overly impressed with himself and his own magnificence. He justifies his most illogical whims with the phrase "mysterious ways." And yet, he holds the audience in the palm of his hand, like an avuncular old man with a chest full of tall tales. Parsons is a gifted comedian, eliciting wild guffaws from ho-hum material merely by arching one of his finely manicured eyebrows.
That turns out to be a good thing because the play itself is only mildly funny, like an extended Family Guy bit. It runneth over with references to buzz-worthy celebrities like Kanye West and Bruce Jenner; the very mention of their names is the punch line. The Lord makes a bafflingly dated reference to the 1980s primetime television drama Dallas. In a gesture of perfunctory metatheatricality, God notes that he's just appearing in the form of Jim Parsons (he's tickled by the irony of choosing the star of a show called The Big Bang Theory). He's here to deliver a revised Ten Commandments that God shoots onto a giant stone tablet upstage, like an old-testament Steve Harvey. "Let's play the Feud," he shouts before revealing Commandment One.
Director Joe Mantello stages it all at the bottom of a stairway to heaven. Scenic designer Scott Pask has created a talk-show set, complete with a curvy white couch and a translucent coffee table for God's chalice. David Zinn's costumes are stock heaven: long white robes with gilded embroidery. The angels appear on the verge of molting, with feathery white wings on their backs.
The inclusion of the angels is actually a nifty way to inject a little conflict into what would otherwise be a lecture/standup routine. The archangel Michael (a sympathetic Christopher Fitzgerald) fields questions from the audience, although one suspects from the beginning these charged queries are actually his. He confrontationally asks, "Why is there so much injustice?" In response, God casually strikes off one of his wings with a bolt of lightning. As the angel Gabriel, Tim Kazurinsky is not nearly as in-your-face. He's more like an exhausted yes-man, licking the boots of the CEO and counting down to retirement. God introduces Gabriel to the audience, explaining that he was the angel who dictated the Quran to Muhammad, adding, "At the request of the producers, that is the last you'll be hearing about Islam tonight."
For a play lampooning the deity revered by half the earth's population, An Act of God is surprisingly risk-averse. Artists in Europe and the Middle East have been murdered for lesser expressions of blasphemy yet seeing this show in the secure comfort of a Broadway house actually feels quite vanilla. (It would be much more exciting in Texas or Mississippi.) This is a missed opportunity to really challenge an audience eager to go there. It's not a spoiler to share that the Tenth New Commandment is "Thou Shalt Believe in Thyself," a trite moral ripped straight from Kinky Boots and a dozen other recent Broadway shows.
An Act of God is decidedly not an act of artistic bravery or even originality. It's unlikely to enter the pantheon of great American comedies. But if you want to see a major TV star tell some naughty jokes and wrap it all up in a feel-good cliché, your prayers have been answered.