Parsons’ ‘God’ charms but doesn’t awe

29 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Broadway Review: Jim Parsons in ‘An Act of God’.

Where: Studio 54, 254 W. 54th St., New York When: In previews. NEW YORK — Near the end of the new Broadway comedy An Act of God (**1/2 out of four stars) the archangel Michael rips into his boss. “Why is there suffering?” Michael demands of God. “Why is there so much injustice? Why should there be any injustice?” God, played here by Jim Parsons of The Big Bang Theory fame — in a celestial white robe, blue jeans and orange sneakers — has cut off similarly pesky lines of questioning earlier in the play. Swear to God, the rabid fans greeting the appearance of Jim Parsons in “An Act of God” like the Second Coming honestly don’t give a damn what critics might have to say about the beloved TV star in this enjoyable but unthreatening comedy. (And if God doesn’t like this review, I can just tell him the Devil made me do it.) That paragraph alone should bring down the wrath of the character played by Parsons and identified as God in David Javerbaum’s comedy (based on the scribe’s Twitter account, @TheTweetOfGod) since it contains several transgressions against the Sixth Commandment in God’s new-and-improved rule book: Thou shalt not take My name in vain.

Having proved his mettle as a gay activist in “The Normal Heart,” then a hallucinating eccentric in “Harvey,” both on Broadway, Parsons is the reason why this extended skit made it onto the Great White Way. Yes, God himself is in residence at Studio 54, of all sin-haunted places, holding forth on matter of faith and folly to peals of raucous laughter, in the body of the endearing star of “The Big Bang Theory.” Turns out that while many people have railed darkly against the Almighty’s mordant sense of humor over the years — we learn that God himself thinks the Book of Job is a hoot, although I doubt Job quite appreciated the joke — nobody knew quite how funny the fellow really is.

For others, it will simply be one of several awkward moments in a play that tries to blend irreverent humor with social commentary and, well, doesn’t always succeed. Delivering a new and improved set of Commandments, as transcribed by the man we might call the Moses de nos jours, David Javerbaum, who wrote the show and the book that inspired it, God is really killing it up there. The real source of light here is Parsons, who was most recently on Broadway in “Harvey” and seems to genuinely enjoy doing stage work, God bless him.

But this play is merely a glorified Top 10 list in which God gives us his revised Commandments — a natural format for playwright David Javerbaum, a former “Daily Show” writer who’s now a producer on “The Late Late Show With James Corden.” To present his new rule book, God is assisted by two archangels, or “Genesistants”: Gabriel (Tim Kazurinsky), who paws a Gutenberg Bible, and Michael (Christopher Fitzgerald), who fishes planted questions from the audience. The sheer absurdity of the situation makes the offbeat humor tailor-made for Parsons, a master of the deadpan stare and droll comic delivery. “You’re just lucky I’m the Lord God,” he admonishes latecomers, “and not Patti LuPone.” He’s also insightful about the children’s bedtime prayer “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep,” pointedly noting that little children should be asking Him for ponies, not an early death. And He takes a well-deserved bow for creating eclipses in order to elicit “awe and panic — my two all-time favorite human emotions.” But the re-telling of the original creation myth is too blunt and heavy-handed to be considered witty. Javerbaum’s writing is clever and quirky, and Parsons shows off impressive energy and distinctive, off-kilter charm in the 90-minute piece, aided only by a pair of archangels.

The set by Scott Pask features the title character lounging at the bottom of what looks like a stairway to heaven designed by James Turrell, with rings of light that change color to evoke celestial peace or, at one point, fiery hell. When Michael wonders why the Almighty doesn’t always reward the good or punish the evil, the deity gets cranky: “I totally hear what you’re saying,” he says. “I just prefer mysterious ways, all right?” Michael presses his case — “Where were you during the Holocaust? Parsons’s gift for withering contempt is ideal for the playwright’s conception of a haughty heavenly father with communion-wafer-thin patience for an assortment of human frailties. In between casual, raconteur-style musings by Parsons as God, we’re treated to glimpses of a stereotypical cinematic Almighty, complete with booming voice.

Act’s title character is also problematic; Javerbaum’s God is a comic tyrant, albeit one who can wax earnest and tender, and who ultimately advocates humanism. There are some real crowd pleasers, like #7: “Thou shalt not tell Me what to do,” as in “Thou shalt not tell Me what to bless, damn, forbid, forsake, or speed, or whose queen to save.” But several of His directives and the hard-headed rationale for them get to the core of religious cant and hypocrisy.

That’s as edgy as the show gets: Its safe references and consensual politics make the crowd-pleasing musical “The Book of Mormon” look like a sacrilegious revolutionary tract. Javerbaum, who has based the show on a book and Twitter feed he runs under the same persona, @TheTweetofGod, takes on such topics as how God created the world in a week, what really happened in the Garden of Eden and on Noah’s Ark and what it’s like for God to be a father. Sample tweet: “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I regret you as a species.” The play is a long-form diatribe on this point; 90 minutes proves more than sufficient to the task. Along the way, God, telling us he’s deliberately appropriated Parsons’s form for the occasion, uses this corporeal conveyance to lay down a topically updated Ten Commandments. As Michael, Fitzgerald becomes increasingly frustrated with his boss as he asks some of the biggest, most popular puzzlers, for example, “why do bad things happen to good people?” and “what about evolution?” This is clearly a deity who created man in his image, flaws and all – but God’s are magnified to the level of his power.

Under Mantello’s witty, playful direction, he establishes an easy, knowing rapport with the audience — and with Christopher Fitzgerald and Saturday Night Live alumnus Tim Kazurinsky, who respectively play Michael and the meeker Gabriel. In addition to handing down these new laws, God riffs widely on humankind’s dunderheaded and destructive behavior, specifically the way his words and actions have been misinterpreted over the millennia, causing no end of pain and strife. As with the scientist he plays on TV, complex phrases roll easily off his tongue, and he speaks with authority while maintaining an approachable quality. This is a God who also dishes on Kanye and the Kardashians (targets that are getting old) and, in one of the better bits, makes a convincing argument for the illogic of Noah being able to fit two of every animal on a boat.

A Jeffrey Finn, Shubert Organization, Carl Moellenberg, Arielle Tepper Madover, Stacey Mindich, Bob Boyett, FG Productions, John Frost, Corinne Hayoun, Jamie Kaye-Phillips, Scott Landis, Larry Magid, Stephanie P. While the “Act” is reliably amusing, as we get to know this version of God – one who repeatedly insists that there is something really wrong with him – some jokes become predictable. There’s something about the weary vigilance Parsons projects that gives compelling freshness to this kind of standard-issue Biblical demystification. It’s funny, too, when Parsons, with impeccable timing, reveals that God is able to turn off his omniscience so he can enjoy movies such as “The Sixth Sense,” whose ending, he says, he didn’t see coming. Set, Scott Pask; costumes, David Zinn; lighting, Hugh Vanstone; sound, Fitz Patton; projections, Peter Nigrini; music, Adam Schlesinger; production stage manager, Arthur Gaffin.

Political leanings and cultural tastes are pretty clear – this show is not for fans of Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin or Adam Sandler – and its statements on issues such as gay marriage are probably falling on the ears of the converted. As celestial talk shows go, the one Parsons hosts on Broadway will satisfy his fans and provide diversion enough for those who don’t count themselves worshipers of his sitcom.

But considering the number of believers there are in both Parsons’ unflaggingly excellent delivery and a style of humor that should suit “Daily Show” viewers, there shouldn’t be a problem in getting God a full house. As God tells it: “And so Steve ate of the tree; and he bid Adam eat of it; and the knowledge that their lifestyle was sinful shamed them; whereupon they grew embarrassed, and cloaked themselves in fig leaves, the first clothing, which represented the entirety of the fall collection.” To ease their guilt, God made Steve into Eve, after a simple operation. (Cue a Bruce Jenner joke, which is alone worth the price of admission.) Contrary to what some believe, God does not hate gays. “Gay, straight, bisexual, transgender; thou art all equally smitable in my eyes,” as he puts it bluntly if sweetly. Javerbaum’s annotation of the Scriptures and gather a chuckle, so deliriously funny is he as a sort of amateur theologian and stand-up comedy genius rolled into one. With his sly smile and his sparkly eyes, he delivers the zingers with an easy grace, giving a nice silky consistency to shtick that, in more aggressive hands, might grow oppressive. He handles the pseudo-biblical language as if it comes as naturally to him as the nerd-speak he spouts on television, looking down upon us with an air of benevolent affection, like a really caring therapist, but one who prefers to talk about himself.

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