For all its celebration of personal liberty and countercultural fabulousness, Broadway is actually a fairly God-positive place. Producers are not, after all, in the business of alienating potential audiences with gratuitous sacrilege. The nuns in Sister Act are sassy, not schismatic; Tevye’s a hondler, not an apostate. Even The Book of Mormon, for all its nose-thumbing, ends up endorsing the irrational power of faith in the same way it endorses the irrational power of musicals. So it comes as quite a surprise that David Javerbaum’s An Act of God, which promotes itself as a lighthearted new comedy, is actually one of the most vehement takedowns of the deity ever to reach Broadway. Perhaps the tipoff is that it’s playing at Studio 54, where, as the title character recalls, Liza Minnelli once sniffed Mick Jagger off Elizabeth Taylor.
I say “title character,” but Javerbaum’s premise is that God, who transcends both form and formlessness, is not appearing as himself; rather, he has borrowed a human body in order to deliver an urgent message. The body is that of Jim Parsons: “For lo, I have endowed him with a winning, likable personality; and know of a certainty that your apprehension of My depthless profundities will be aided by his offbeat charm.” And so it is; Parsons, in white Roman-style God-wear and red sneakers, sells the hell out of what is basically a 90-minute monologue, with occasional interruptions from the angels Michael and Gabriel (Christopher Fitzgerald and Tim Kazurinsky) and assorted special effects. If you’ve followed the tweets (@TheTweetOfGod) in which Javerbaum ventriloquizes the Lord (and on which he based the play), you’ll know the flavor: sarcastic, clever, and, miles beneath the surface, deeply serious. Parsons, whose tonal control is as fine as that of a dimmer switch, handles all this with the insouciance of a young George Burns (to name one of his God-playing predecessors), moving with complete ease between camp and dudgeon, mockery and message.
That message seems amusing enough, at first. Having grown weary of his original, imperfect effort, “in exactly the same way Don McLean has grown weary of ‘American Pie,’” God wants to deliver a new Ten Commandments, this time without Mosaic intermediary. “I’ve decided to give My new commandments directly to the Jewish people,” he explains. “That’s why I’m here on Broadway.” The new commandments are displayed Family Feud–style on an electronic tote board within an oculus in the sky (the suitably empyrean set design is by Scott Pask), which is a good idea not only visually but structurally, since the serial revelation of the Decalogue provides the show with its only semblance of structure. (Here as elsewhere, God is discursive.) Even so, the surprise of the revised rules doesn’t last. Almost all of the eight new commandments — two are holdovers — express a predictably crowd-pleasing liberal agenda. Will anyone at Studio 54 be offended to learn that God wants to enforce a separation of church and state? (“I’m not blessing you anymore,” he tells America, “so stop asking.”) That he wants to end the practice of killing in His name? (“It’s patronizing.”) And that he wants people to stop telling others “whom to fornicate”? Turns out God’s super-pro-gay; he really did create Adam and Steve.
The jokes keep landing — nearly one per sentence — and if they occasionally achieve a rat-a-tat quality that tends to raise smiles while suppressing laughter, they are always, at least, smart. (How can you not admire a writer who sums up the idiotic concept of Noah’s ark as “a phylogenetically complete nautical double bestiary”?) But Javerbaum, and his director, Joe Mantello, are too theatrically savvy to leave it at that. Another note, slowly introduced among the zingers and rim shots, eventually becomes dominant, and this one, while still funny, is darker and potentially more theologically challenging than mere spoofs of Bible stories. It’s the note of divine self-criticism: God, reviewing his infinite life so far, has begun to question not just his actions (almost forcing Abraham to kill Isaac, destroying most of mankind, everything to do with Job) but also his very nature. “Wrath-management issues” are the least of it. Looking at himself in the cold light of divinity, God finds himself “a jealous, petty, sexist, racist, mass-murdering narcissist.” He is, he tells us, our worst mistake, just as we are his.
To any thinking person these can hardly be spoilers. Still, I give Javerbaum a lot of credit for going to that dark place, and probably the journey was possible only under cover of the constant jokes. But the indirection is hard on an audience, which wants to share the kind of 1,000-person laughs you get only in a theater; instead, especially in the last third, I found myself a little stumped by what had now become an edgy brief for atheism. The play (with some clever direction by Mantello) pulls itself out of that trap in time for a boffo ending, involving smoke, Steve Jobs, and even a nifty song by Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger (who together wrote the underappreciated score for the musical Cry-Baby). “There’s far too many people. / Demand exceeds supply,” God croons. “All of you’d be better off / If most of you would die.”
Well, it’s not exactly “You Can’t Stop the Beat.” Indeed, when you think back on the experience, you may feel, as I did, that in blending light summer comedy with apocalyptic theology, An Act of God has committed at least a minor sin, like eating milk with meat. But aren’t cheeseburgers delicious?
An Act of God is at Studio 54 through August 2.