Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 6, 2016
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 Schelsinger. Projection design by Peter Nigrini. Illusion Consultant Paul Kieve. Special Effects by Gregory Meeh. Cast: Sean Hayes, also starring David Josefsberg, James Gleason.
When this show opened last year, then as now under the direction of Joe Mantello, it was with sitcom and Broadway star Jim Parsons in the lead to end all leads. Now that he's been replaced by sitcom and Broadway star Sean Hayes (known from, respectively, Will & Grace and the 2010 revival of Promises, Promises), who just wrapped up runs in the part in Los Angeles and San Francisco, you get to see His lighter sidein all senses of the word.
This is not remotely to suggest that An Act of God, which is based on Javerbaum's 2011 book The Last Testament: A Memoir (and his now-dormant @TheTweetOfGod Twitter feed), was ever that substantial. Its gimmick is that God descends to Broadway in the persona of a beloved television star to deliver updated versions of His Ten Commandments that clarify previous misunderstandings and, in their content and structure ("Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate," "Thou shalt separate Me and state") are designed to push us away from Him, for reasons I probably shouldn't divulge (lest they be considered spoilers).
The humor derives from the foundational notion that the God of the bible (and the Quran, though He doesn't dwell on that part) wants to convince us that He is in fact so in tune with us that the most correct way to believe in him is to not believe in Him. And, of course, that those who claim to be on His side couldn't be any further from itto the collection of almost exclusively left-leaning jabs is a new one at Senator Ted Cruz that sent the audience with which I saw the show into hysterics. Okay.
If you find these notions funny, you'll find the show funny; if you don't, most likely because you don't find the biblical God that crazy a notion to begin with, you probably won't. As for my own feelings about the piece, they remain largely unchanged from last year, just as Mantello's direction, the set (a heavenly staircase and skyscape by Scott Pask), costumes (pristine white, by David Zinn), lights (Hugh Vanstone), and thundering sound (Fitz Patton) have: As an act, it is what it is, and you're either going to like it or not; when it gets into Play territory, with Archangel Michael (David Josefsberg) asking all the faith-denying questions we're presumed to want to ("What about all the evidence for evolution?", "Do you answer prayers?", "Why is there suffering?"), it's more desperate, as well as less literate and entertaining.
An Act of God, though, is being presented as an old-fashioned star vehicleso how's the star? Hayes is a delightful, impish comic actor, who can simultaneously appear weighty and not actually be so, traits that are just right for the playful Deity Javerbaum has conceived. He holds the stage, effortlessly and well, and develops an instant rapport with both Michael, his cohort Gabriel (a fine James Gleason), and the audience, with whom he regularly interacts. (A word to the wise: Avoid the front row, especially near the house-right aisle, if you don't want to be part of the action.)
Hayes's God also impresses as one really, really into messing with people, which gives him an unusual authority on certain subjects, particularly pertaining to the Old Testament; he unlocks a real glee in relating his torment of Job as part of a bet with Satan, for example, and connects nicely with a plot that's about Someone who's given up caring throwing up his hands and walking away. You can't help but believe the figure Hayes is playing would do exactly that.
What's missing? The soberness beneath. As good as Hayes is with the comedy, he has yet to lock down the (few) serious moments, most of which pertain to the early mission of Jesus Christ. Unlike Parsons, who conveyed a deep, abiding, and even moving respect for His son and His accomplishments, Hayes approaches them as just another, if lighter, bit, suggesting the Savior is due, at best, an affectionate punch on the shoulder. Without projecting some concrete feeling, Hayes's God just seems like kind of a jerk, and that casts the apocalyptic final scenes in a different, less-revealing, and more hopeless light.
If Hayes's performance, like An Act of God itself, is hardly to be worshiped, they're both effective on its own terms, provided you're on Javerbaum's side going in. And if you saw it before, you will discover new things now, which is not a bad standard for any revival to meet. It could be more and do more, sure, but that ark has sailed. If God doesn't change, even if his outer appearance does, why should His show?