Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 28, 2015
An Act of God by David Javerbaum. Directed by Joe Mantello. Scenic design by Scott Pask. Costume design by David Zinn. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound design by Fitz Patton. Music by Adam Schlesinger. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Illusion Consultant Paul Kieve. Special effects by Gregory Meeh. Cast: Jim Parsons, Christopher Fitzgerald, Tim Kazurinsky.
This is not new territory for Javerbaum. His @TheTweetOfGod Twitter feed, which as of this writing has nearly two million followers, has been dispensing exactly this shtick (and, in some cases, the exact same jokes) for more than four a half years. It derives its levity from the notion that, if God were omnipresent on social media, he would be the first to admit that objective truth went out with the Old Testament, and that the only way to become closer to him is to disavow the teachings on which every Abrahamic religion (whose adherents number approximately half the world's population) is based. In other words, Javerbaum's God is the rare omnipotent who doesn't want you to believe in him.
Dispensed in controlled, 140-character doses, his pronouncements are good for the occasional chuckle (if you buy into the premise) or eye-rolling scoff (if you don't), but are otherwise as of-the-moment disposable as most of what's on Twitter. But An Act of God runs 90 minutes rather than nine seconds, a fact that introduces plenty of danger of barren stretches of desert between the laughs a danger that Javerbaum does not successfully avoid.
His conceit is that this God, with the help of his two angelic assistants, Gabriel (Tim Kazurinsky) and Michael (Christopher Fitzgerald), has taken over Parsons's body for the night. His purpose: to replace those old, dusty Ten Commandments ("I never meant it to define me, to be the one work of mine everyone quotes and debates and interprets") with a new set that "will forever end that uncertainty regarding what it is I desire from humanity that has caused so much bitterness and hatred among you over the millennia." (He then adds: "All of which I found very flattering. Thanks again. Means a lot.")
Some of these new commandments are, unsurprisingly, of the contemporary, feel-good variety: "Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate," "Thou shalt separate me and state." Others are ostensibly clarifications: "Thou shalt not kill in my name," for example. There are a couple of holdovers in "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" and "Thou shalt not take my name in vain." The remainder could, I suppose, at least in part be considered spoilers, so I'll refrain from digging too much deeper into their particular contents.
Are these, and dozens of others, funny? Sure, though not consistently. (Not even God can hit 100 percent of the time, apparently.) But they do get tiresome after a while, particularly once a more sweeping plot point is introduced late in the evening. As, for that matter, does Michael's constantly interrogating God on our behalf ("What about all the evidence for evolution?", "Is it really part of your plan that children should die of cancer?"), which is sort of played for comedy, but not sensible: Michael is qualified to be God's right-hand angel but can't answer these questions himself?
You're not supposed to think about any of this too seriously 140 characters, remember but even so, there's not quite enough meat (or, if you prefer, loaves and fishes) for an entire feast. (There's a reason the word "act" rather than "play" is used in the show's title.) As such, director Joe Mantello doesn't have much to do: There's no depth for him to accentuate, hardly any action to stage, and hardly any characters for him to highlight and shepherd. There are a few special effects (designed by Gregory Meeh and Paul Kieve), but the set (Scott Pask), costumes (David Zinn), and lights (Hugh Vanstone) are of the crisp, white variety that suggest a mating of heaven and a 1940s bandstand: indistinct but inoffensive.
The performances are much the same with Kazurinsky and Fitzgerald, both gifted comedians in the right circumstances, wasted in their bit parts, and Parsons mainly left alone to do a variation on the kind of dry, brittle delivery he's perfected on The Big Bang Theory. He's capable of considerably more, as he demonstrated in Harvey at this theater three years ago. But he doesn't let the material down, even if he projects none of the authority one would associate with the figure who, you know, created the universe.
Parsons shines brightest when An Act of God does, which is not when it's cracking wise. In articulating his new eighth commandment, "Thou shalt honor thy children," God reminisces about the life of his middle child, Jesus (his siblings, as you may know, are Zach and Kathy), and the impact He's had on the world. And as he describes the sacrifice and crucifixion, and even seems to be impressed by it ("Thou didst it! Thou didst it, kiddo!"), to the point of considering that perhaps Jesus died for his sins as well, this God becomes not just an unapproachable, incomprehensible being, but someone who loves, strives, and stumbles just as we do.
In those few moments, Javerbaum's concept transcends itself, apotheosizing into thoughtful commentary that's perfectly balanced between spiritually uplifting and honestly entertaining. It's the only time An Act of God manages to be profound (the only time it tries to be, really), but it's a stirring reminder of the value of believing in something bigger than yourself, even if everyone including, in this case, God himself tells you not to bother.