June 10, 2015

"An Act of God" is Just a Small Blessing

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that the number of non-believers—atheists, agnostics, people who check the “none of the above” box when asked about their religious affiliation—is on the rise in the U.S. So I don’t know what to make of the recent spate of plays that have wrestled, in one way or another, with faith.

Over the last few seasons, we’ve had Grand Concourse, a drama whose main character is a nun afraid she’s lost her calling; the short-lived musicals Leap of Faith and Scandalous, about mid-century evangelists, and even The Book of Mormon, which, despite its anarchic sensibility, ultimately endorses the power of belief. 

Coming to Playwrights Horizons in the fall is The Christians, a much anticipated work that centers on the pastor of a megachurch. And onstage right now are Robert Askins’ hilarious and yet moving puppet ministry play Hand to God and An Act of God, the first show of this new Broadway season, which is running at Studio 54 only through Aug. 2.

God (who gets his own bio in the Playbill) is the main character in An Act of God and the play’s conceit is that the Divine Being has assumed the body of the popular TV actor Jim Parsons in order to present an update of the Ten Commandments.

The script is by David Javerbaum, the former head writer and executive producer of “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” Which should give you some idea of the show’s irreverent and decidedly left-leaning tone (this deity believes firmly in the separation of church and state and gay marriage). But Javerbaum also tucks in some valid theological questions about why God allows suffering and death (click here to read more about the genesis of the show).

It also helps that God is played by Parsons, wearing a slapdash toga over jeans and red sneakers. He's so personally endearing that all but the most devout believers will be willing to discount the play’s bodacious blasphemy, although I did see two couples walk out during the performance my friend Jessie and I attended.

The jokes (sample: God really did create Adam and Steve before adding Eve) aren’t actually all that original or sinful but the production, directed by Joe Mantello, is engaging, getting lots of mileage out of Scott Pask’s elegant set and some smart video projections by Peter Nigrini and special effects by Gregory Meeh.

Christopher Fitzgerald and Tim Kazurinsky also do their part in the supporting roles of the archangels Michael and Gabriel. But this is basically a one-man show and Parsons, in comfortable command onstage and a master of droll delivery, confirms his status as a comedy god.

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