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An Act of God

The Signature Theatre production offers insight into heaven. logo
Evan Casey (Michael), Tom Story (God), and Jamie Smithson (Gabriel) in An Act of God, directed by Eleanor Holdridge, at Signature Theatre.
(© Margot Schulman)

An Act of God, the Broadway hit currently enjoying a lively local premiere at Signature Theatre, is an ebullient, irreverent little play by 13-time Emmy Award winner David Javerbaum. Although its central character is God, this is in no way a spiritual exercise: Instead, in the Signature Theatre space appropriately called The Ark, Washington, D.C., actor Tom Story gives God's invisible presence a visible persona and fills it with maximum humor and earthy reality.

In the world according to Javerbaum, life is anything but heaven on earth. Millions of people call upon God in prayer every day, begging him for things they will never receive. Or they try to understand what God is attempting to say through his fires, floods, and hurricanes. Or else they call his name while practicing unspeakable acts. No wonder God is in a bad mood much of the time. Flanked by his angels Gabriel (Jamie Smithson) and Michael (Evan Casey), God makes it clear that he is the Real Deal, the one who speaks through burning bushes and whirlwinds, the one who delivered the original Ten Commandments.

But he's tired of those Commandments and has decided to rewrite them to be more compatible with the present day. He starts with a reminder of how powerful he is and what "the Lord Thy God" really means: that he created everything from the heavens and earth to the sun, moon, stars, and animals. When an angel impertinently asks about evolution, God looks shocked, as though the question had never been asked before. Then he smugly comes up with a satisfactory answer: That was his idea, too. God's take on the second Commandment is that it should indicate clearly that He doesn't care with whom people fornicate. He is clearly not homophobic. He adores theater but does not like it when Kanye and Matthew McConaughey take his name in vain. But as the show travels through each of the Commandments, the plot line wavers a bit. God, it seems, is neither a conservative nor a liberal. He is completely separate from politics.

Story is an excellent choice for the leading role in An Act of God. He comes on as a thoroughly congenial person, intelligent, energetic, outgoing, perfectly suited for an hour-and-a-half chat with a group of total strangers where he does all the talking. He alternately tells jokes, narrates Biblical stories, and unburdens his soul about his problems. During that chat, Story is primarily in comic mode — delivering joke after joke smartly, cleanly — but occasionally he lets fly a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning just to keep everyone in line. He has "wrath management issues," he explains.

Smithson and Casey are able backups as the angels Gabriel and Michael, respectively. Smithson stands at a music stand stage left, guarding the Gutenberg Bible and reading sections of it periodically. Casey occasionally wanders among the audience members, asking questions of some. At one point he is banished and wounded for asking a question, but eventually comes back with a patched-up wing.

Director Eleanor Holdridge milks this comedy for every bit of goofy, offbeat humor. Daniel Conway's set evokes a conventional image of heaven: baby-blue walls covered with puffy white clouds, ornate plaster decorations on double doors, marble columns, and one elegant white satin recliner. Robert Croghan costumes all three characters in white tuxedo jackets, white slacks, white shoes, and gold accessories. The angels wear huge, stiff, pseudo-feather white wings with golden tips. Lighting designer Alberto Segarra creates a fine array of effects, from stunning lightning bolts to subtle changes in the colors of paradise.

An Act of God won't stand up to any serious analysis, dramatic or theological. It's a mental romp around the Old and New Testaments refracted through a gay sensibility, and it doesn't pretend to be anything more than it is. Still, it's better entertainment than you'll find in most television sitcoms. Best of all, since the power of the piece is all in the delivery, this Act of God offers the inimitable Tom Story performing one-and-a-half hours of virtually nonstop comedy. It's heavenly.