By Stanford Friedman
In the beginning, playwright David Javerbaum created the Twitter account @TheTweetOfGod which begat a fictional majestic memoir, The Last Testament, and he saw that it was good, both in terms of his followers (nearly 2 million on Twitter) and his profits. Thus there comes to us the stage version, An Act of God, mounted in the unholiest of places, that former disco den of iniquity, Studio 54. It’s a One-Act of God to be precise, 90 minutes of presentational comedy that, if not quite divine, is at least good for a chuckle or two on our way to the ultimate curtain call.
Our Lord, it turns out, has a few liberal bones to pick and a new set of commandments to bestow (“Number 4: Separate me and state.”). To do so, He has chosen to present Himself in the guise of Jim Parsons. Why? Perhaps He knows that Parsons is a perfect draw for tourists who have been watching him for years on The Big Bang Theory, yet has enough theatrical cred to bring in the locals. (And perhaps this show’s producers are savvy enough to know that they could easily tour this show with nearly any celebrity.) Fans who come to the theater to feel like a TV star is talking directly to them will not be disappointed, especially if they happen to be seated late. Those seeking rich characterization and a well-structured storyline should just stay at home with the good book. “Know thy audience,” Parson advises at the start. Later on, a shameless scene which promotes the merchandise on sale in the lobby suggests that they wouldn’t mind milking the audience as well.
Javerbaum spent many years toiling at the behest of another supreme being, Jon Stewart. Having served as head writer and executive producer of The Daily Show, and having amassed some 13 Emmys, the man clearly knows his way around a joke. Here, he truly runs the gamut, from the lowest pun to the highest metaphysical rambling. Some gags are actually punctuated with rim shots. Others, like a line about a shekel-laundering scheme in Gomorrah, zoom over the audience’s head without stopping to land the laugh. There’s a holocaust joke that still seems too soon, dated references to J.R. Ewing and The Sixth Sense, and current event humor with predictable topics like selfies and the Kardashians.
The writing begins to gel in the final half hour as a subtle seriousness sneaks in and mixes with a wry silliness when the topic turns to Jesus, whom we learn is God’s middle child (siblings Zach and Cathy apparently never amounted to much). Amid the laughs, there are the moments of introspection and contemplation of religious self-worth that would have been welcomed from the start.
Director Joe Mantello, having recently done all that he could to breathe life into the Manhattan Theatre Club’s production of Airline Highway, catches his breath here, plunking Parsons down on a couch for nearly the entire show, and making minimal use of the two-man supporting cast. The angel Gabriel (Former SNL cast member Tim Kazurinsky) shows up to stand in the corner and occasionally read from a bible, while the angel Michael (Christopher Fitzgerald) roams through the audience posing questions, as if to compensate for the lack of physical movement elsewhere. Upstage from the couch, scenic designer Scott Pask has constructed a literal stairway to heaven, surrounded by a nifty and massive oculus for lighting designer Hugh Vanstone to bounce colors off of, and for projection designer Peter Nigrini to fill with clouds, and cosmic star stuff.
An actor with more stand-up experience might have gotten bigger laughs. An older actor might have added some needed gravitas (Think George Burns in the old Oh, God! films). But Parsons’ quirky charm is generally enough to carry the day, despite even a rough musical number that he suffers through with Job-like tenacity.
God, meanwhile, gets His own bio in the Playbill with credits including the “1827 comic romp, The Book of Mormon.” This reminds us that, along with Mormon and Larry David’s Fish in the Dark, there are now three currently running Broadway shows scribed by subversive TV comedy writers. While at first this might sound like a harbinger of the apocalypse, it is encouraging to remember that Neil Simon started out the same way.
An Act of God – Written by David Javerbaum, Directed by Joe Mantello.
WITH: Jim Parsons (God), Christopher Fitzgerald (Michael), and Tim Kazurinsky (Gabriel).
Scenic design by Scott Pask; costume design by David Zinn; lighting design by Hugh Vanstone; sound design by Fitz Patton; projection design by Peter Nigrini; Arthur Gaffin, production stage manager. Studio 54, 254 West 54th St., 212-239-6200, http://anactofgod.com. Through August 2nd. Running time: 90 minutes.