One of the noble paths of Buddhism, I learned, was right speech. Saying nothing negative as a way to attain inner peace. Right then, there goes my job. But as I later sat watching the play, I found that lo and behold, I really didn’t have much of anything negative to say about the show or the production. Is it possible this critic is on her way toward nirvana, or was the show just that enjoyable? Let’s examine and find out.
“I’m an asshole and I made man in my image”, says God with a wink and a nod. It’s his way of explaining both man’s bad behavior and all the horrible things he himself has allowed (or caused) to happen. The “he” in this case isn’t meant to be patriarchal, but rather descriptive. God in this production is played by Todd Waite. Or maybe played isn’t the right word. More like Todd Waite is unknowingly possessed by God who is speaking through him to us. At least that’s what he, Todd as God, tells us at the start of the show.
If this all sounds terribly irreverent, you ain’t seen nothing yet. After all, An Act of God is the brainchild of David Javerbaum, a writer with 11 years of working at The Daily Show under his belt, so you know that fun is going to be poked and poked hard. But then Javerbaum’s had lots of practice plying his often hysterically heretical musings. First there was the book, Memoirs by God, then there was the Twitter account where Javerbaum cheekily tweeted as the persona of the Almighty to the tune of 2 million followers (me included) and then there were the two successful Broadway runs of this show starring Jim Parsons and Sean Hays in turn as God.
But back to poor possessed Todd. Dressed in heavenly flowing white robes and black New Balance sneakers, he stands on a circular dais adorned only with his plush white modern couch and goblet-holding side table. Accompanying him are the white-suited and winged archangels Gabriel (John Feltch) and Michael (Emily Trask) or Gabe and Mike as God casually calls them in a vernacular that sways between Holy Order and Kardashian OMG-ish. He’s taken on corporeal form and brought the angles along to help him correct a wrong. Namely mankind’s foolish misconceptions about his works and intentions. Specifically the Ten Commandments.
“Yea, I have grown weary of the Ten Commandments, in exactly the same way that Don McLean has grown weary of ‘American Pie,’” God says, setting up the structure of the 90-minute show. It’s not exactly original, Javerbaum’s idea to take aim at Mosaic Law. In The History of the World Part 1, Mel Brooks had us giggling over the notion that there were initially 15 commandments until Moses dropped a tablet, shattering it to pieces. In an essay and viral video, Christopher Hitchens pointed his razor sharp mind and tongue at the commandments, calling them out for ethical dubiousness and challenging their authority.
But unlike Brook’s silliness and Hitchen’s religious revile, Javerbaum’s aim is to both amuse and make us think. To make us laugh at the preposterousness of faith while pondering what we as humans have done in the name of it. Javerman’s God therefore doesn’t want to trash the Ten Commandments per se, but rather he wishes to radically expand the list while keeping some of the original gems. Like an extended cut, if you will.
What follows is a run-through of the new Ten Commandments. Along the way, we get many excuses as to why these ideas weren’t expressed the first time round, great gossipy stories about how things really transpired in popular biblical stories and a power point presentation accompanied by many rim shot sound accoutrements outlining our new rules. Commandment No. 2 tells us not to tell others who to fornicate with, accompanied by God’s wildly funny story of how originally Adam’s partner in Eden was another man named Steve. God has no issue with homosexuality it seems. He created it. Commandment No. 3 bids us not to kill in God’s name. It’s patronizing God tells us, he doesn’t need our help killing humans. Don’t we remember the Great Flood, which by the way God assures us didn’t quite happen the way the Bible tells us it did. Two of every animal on earth? Yeah, right he says. On one ship?
Along the way Gabriel helps God out by reading biblical passages at his command while Michael plays a more impertinent role pretending to take questions from the audience as a way to question God’s value and authority. “Why do you let bad things happen. Do you answer prayers? Why don’t you go down there and show people you’re real?” These questions, the difficult questions, turn the impish, funny, scallywag God we’ve been laughing at and with into a far more wrathful creature. Javerbaum’s God may be all powerful, but he knows that something is wrong with him and it sticks in his craw. For poor Michael, it costs him a wing.
But this is a comedy first and foremost, and so the darkness is quickly washed away and the jokes continue like a heavenly comedy routine cleverly referencing everything from American Idol to Kanye to the breakup of Brangelina. And yes, even to Trump.
However, by the time Commandment No. 7 hits the stage (Stop telling God to what to do – he doesn’t want to bless your sneezes) we’re well over an hour into the show and some of the magic has worn off. It’s not that Waite as God isn’t still eminently entertaining in his delivery. Throughout the show, his ease with the heretically funny material is delivered with loveable sass and his comedic timing makes it impossible not to adore his performance. Director James Black knows that Waite can be a ham, and he pushes it to the utmost amount without overplaying his hand. Feltch and Trask as the angels are perfectly attuned to the minor but crucial roles they play in goading God forward. And yet, we grow somewhat weary even as God embarks on the story of Jesus as merely one of his three kids, a middle child with an inferiority complex.
Perhaps it’s because An Act of God is really more of a stand-up comic routine, better suited to an hour set than a full-fledged 90-minute show. Maybe we’re thrown off course by some more serious and touchy feel-y notions introduced in the latter scenes of the play, urging us to forge our own path. Or maybe it’s because by that hour my Buddhist-influenced ‘think nice thoughts and say nice things’ influence had run its course. No matter the impetus, we were ready for it to be over.
To Javerbaum’s credit and Black’s direction, the lull does give way to a delightful Vegas style ending that fairly near wipes away the 20 or so minutes that could have been cut. We leave laughing, just as we began - having the piss taken out of religious reverence, but more importantly, being able to laugh at ourselves as mere mortals in a world we cannot really ever fully understand.
It might not be a perfect show, but when it’s this much fun, I’ll chalk that up as a checkmark in my theater nirvana column.
An Act of God continues through April 16 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information call 713-229-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org. $53-$105.