The unlikely life of the new comedy An Act of God
In the beginning, there was the Producer.
Or so sayeth playwright David Javerbaum, who credits Jeffrey Finn as the primary shepherd behind An Act of God,
the Broadway adaptation of Javerbaum's 2011 humor collection The Last Testament: A Memoir by God.
"It had been a vague idea of mine that it could work on stage," Javerbaum says of his iconoclastic, confessional book, which is organized in chapters and verses with such headings as "Semiticus," "Reduxodus" and "The Gospel According to Dad." The book was long ago eclipsed by its spinoff Twitter account, @TheTweetofGod
, which the author created to help promote the title. (The account now has 1.95 million followers.)
"I thought it could work as a play, but I wasn't driving it forward," the writer says. But then Finn, a producer of Broadway's recent Seminar, Oleanna
and The Elephant Man
, materialized. "He was very determined to do it," Javerbaum says. "He was a big fan of both the book and the Twitter account. It's great to have somebody advocating on your behalf."
The newly minted playwright, whose comedy chops landed him 13 Emmys as a writer and producer for The Daily Show,
credits Finn not only with raising money, but also serving as a genuine creative producer, bringing ideas to the table.
"Once he was on board, we had conversations about how to shape the material," Javerbaum says. "He had the idea that The Ten Commandments could serve as a series of tent posts around which the show could be structured."
The writer adds, "The majority of the stuff in the show — probably 80 percent of it — is new. It's not really from the Twitter account or the book. Frankly, if the book had sold 10 million copies and was adored by millions then I would feel ickier about changing it, but it wasn't that big a seller. All I want to do is make it work in this context. There was nothing about the book that was sacred — that's true on several levels — and there's nothing about the book that I was reluctant to change."
The confessional "one-God show", which is now at Studio 54, is a chance for the maker of heaven and earth to share some thoughts on everything from Bruce Jenner to Broadway's Cabaret
. God is played by Jim Parsons, and the script has fun with that bit of casting.
"Though I reside in all forms, yet my essence is formless," God says at the top of the 85-minute show, "tonight I have chosen to appear in form, specifically that of beloved television star Jim Parsons. For lo, I have endowed him with a winning, likeable personality and know of a certainty that your apprehension of My depthless profundities will be aided by his offbeat charm. And then, the irony of him starring in a show called The Big Bang Theory
, I just couldn't resist. …Nice guy, by the way. He has no idea he's here."
Javerbaum, whose previous Broadway credit is writing Tony-nominated lyrics for the musical Cry-Baby
, sought to structure An Act of God
as "an emotional story that goes vaguely from the Bible to the present day, that is very interactive with the audience."
To enhance the interactivity, Javerbaum has given God two "wingmen," the angels Gabriel (Tim Kazurinsky) and Michael (Christopher Fitzgerald). Gabriel quotes the Bible, while Michael challenges God with tough questions about human suffering.
Director Joe Mantello suggested that Michael should fully break the fourth wall
, working the audience with a mic in hand.
"Michael is the voice of humanity, the conduit between God and people," Javerbaum says. "That makes the show come to life. There are some moments that are wonderfully uncomfortable for certain members of the audience. I like that a lot because it seemed like the kind of thing God would do. The Old Testament God would really get off on making people uncomfortable."
The rehearsal and preview period of An Act of God
has been roughly analogous to the daily meetings that might happen in the writers' room of a TV comedy, where jokes are crafted and sometimes ruthlessly axed.
"The great thing about working in comedy is there's a fairly clear metric to see whether something is working or not," says Javerbaum, who is currently a producer for The Late Late Show With James Corden
. "I have learned over the years that cutting is your friend. People don't miss what they don't know was once there."
He adds, "The writers' room is probably — to be honest — more fun [than playwriting] because there's a bunch of funny people there goofing off with you, and that's the best."
But he is not exactly creating An Act of God
alone. His de-facto writers' room on Broadway has hitmaker Mantello (Wicked, Take Me Out
) at his side, serving as omniscient editor.
"If he thinks something could be better, he's right," Javerbaum says. "It's wonderful to cede authority and do so willingly without any concerns."
Spoken like a true believer.
Kenneth Jones is a theatre journalist and dramatist. He also writes at ByKennethJones.com and elsewhere.
Photos by Jeremy Daniel. Top photo: Jim Parsons as God.