The sly and insightful humor of David Javerbaum’s An Act of God stems primarily from a niftily canny bit of reverse-engineering, summed up by God’s line late in the play (sorry, I’m going to spoil this for you): “I made mankind in my image – and I’m an asshole, all right?”
Javerbaum’s God is, like so many of the humans he modeled after himself, a self-serving, petty, jealous, power-hungry, nasty, judgmental, self-righteous jerk, with wrath management issues to boot. He’s also chatty, confiding, and charismatically charming, as you’d expect a God to be. And as played by Marcus Stevens, he’s unabashedly Jewish, highly sardonic, a little bit fey, and utterly hilarious.
The conceit of the play is that God has come to the O’Reilly Theatre and taken form in the body of actor Marcus Stevens in order to bring a new set of laws to replace the original ten commandments, which God feels have run their course. He’s brought with him a couple of archangels, Gabriel (John Shepard), who stands ready “on Bible” to provide textual evidence, and Michael (Tim McGeever), whose job is to read the minds of members of the audience and pass their questions on to God. As he goes through the new commandments one by one, God gives perfectly logical explanations for why he’s jettisoning the old commandment for the new, brings in Bible passages for support and de- (or re-)constructs them, and fields Michael’s increasingly combative questions.
The new commandments all reflect the frustration a progressive might imagine God would feel at the way humans have (mis)interpreted and (mis)used religion and faith to mistreat each other. So, for example, one of the first new commandments is “Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate.” This is clearly a God who’s more than a little fed up with humanity. At the same time, he’s omniscient and all-powerful and doesn’t much like to be second-guessed, either – hence, he reserves a special place downstairs for humanists, doubters, and evolutionary biologists.
Javerbaum was a head writer for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and the writing here is pitched, like that show, at an audience of intelligent, well-educated, progressive skeptics. A smattering of the humor involves groan-inducing puns (for example, riffing on Don McLean’s American Pie, God claims that “today the mosaic (law) dies”). But the majority of the comedy comes from a combination of surprise juxtaposition of ideas in the writing and Stevens’s masterful comic timing and versatile delivery. Stevens cascades through an astonishing range of tones and facial expressions as his God shifts in mood from warm and confiding to snarky and sardonic to pissed off and vengeful, with infinite shadings in between. Shepard and McGeever are divine as his “wingmen” (see what I did there?) – Shepard’s Gabriel seems full of gravitas, but he can’t keep from cracking up over some of the more ridiculous passages in the sacred text from which he intones, and McGeever’s Michael finds it impossible not to challenge God with all of the inconsistencies and injustices he has baked into his creation.
Director Ted Pappas beefs up the humor with sound and lighting effects that appropriately “meta” the comedy – drum riffs for the terrible puns and deep red glows to underscore God’s moments of rage (sound by Zach Moore, lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski). Michael Schweikardt’s heaven is a gay 80s modernist paradise, with a white couch and glass-and-chrome side table that would fit in nicely on the set of Dallas and a background that presents a camp version of the celestial gates, complete with bright clouds and a gauzy white curtain. Valerie M. Webster’s white and blue costuming – complete with wings for the angels – rounds out the sleek and slightly kitschy look. Together the set and costumes deftly complement Javerbaum’s astute and irreverent take on religion.
Oh, and did I mention it ends with a show tune?