Commandment 11: Thou shalt buy tickets to this show.
I wouldn’t expect God to toot His own horn, especially when he has Gabriel around to do it for Him, but He was remiss in omitting that mandate from the list of laws He delivers from on high in Pittsburgh Public Theater’s miraculous mounting of An Act of God. I was enraptured from its thunderous genesis to its rollicking revelations and left praying for more.
This play is the gospel according to author David Javerbaum. The 13-time Emmy winning writer has a résumé that should have earned him an honorary doctorate in comedy by now. Most of Javerbaum’s acclaim stems from his long stint as head writer on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, but his memorable work as a lyricist—for musicals including Cry-Baby—is also highly lauded. As a solo author, he has penned two books, the most recent of which serves as the basis for this 2015 one-act.
If that novel’s title The Last Testament: A Memoir by God doesn’t prepare you for the glory in store at the O’Reilly, I’ll do my best to paint the picture of a god that refers to Himself not only as jealous but also as a racist, sexist mass-murderer.
With a little help from His archangels Gabriel and Michael, God reflects on His infinite history and the small portion of it He has spent creating and recreating the universe we call home. Via a revised slab of Ten Commandments (handsomely projected on Michael Schweikardt’s razzle dazzle set that literally leaves you on Cloud 9) paired with surprising anecdotes that allude to God’s darker motivations, The Bible is largely and amusingly debunked as religious fan fiction.
Fully aware of the fact that His facetiousness might be considered heresy to some, God even “takes questions” from the audience during His holy TED Talk. When God lays down His final judgment, it’s impossible to know if the world is saved or doomed but also impossible to deny that this small corner of it is entertained.
I value cleverness in a script above nearly all other virtues, and An Act of God is brimming with it. Rather than settling for just turning ancient Bible stories inside out, the play sets out to ground them in modern sociopolitical contexts.
Perhaps the most gut-busting and astute monologue of the show recasts Eve as Adam’s gay lover Steve. Steve’s sampling of the forbidden fruit is the first domino in the long legacy of homophobia and self-loathing we know all too well today. I was impressed at how skillfully the play balanced being sophisticated and preposterous at times while remaining relatable.
It’s an even stranger feat to craft what is basically a one-person show with three actors, but Javerbaum has conquered the task with ease.
Using Emmy-winning sitcom superstars like Sean Hayes and Jim Parsons to deliver His testimony has been God’s wont for previous Broadway productions of this show, but it’s truly a blessing that He’s chosen “Forbidden Broadway star and beloved Pittsburgh actor” Marcus Stevens as His vessel for this engagement.
There is no limit—not the sky, nor the heavens—to his likability and versatility. His poor wrath-management skills will leave you quivering in your seat even as that trademark grin spreads across his face. When God smites His most inquisitive angel Michael or delivers a cheesy pun, Stevens receives a huge and hilarious assist from sound designer Zach Moore.
Stevens’ “offbeat charm” is necessary to guide the show through some of its cringe-worthy topical mad lib references to notorious figures including Bill Cosby, Caitlyn Jenner, and Kanye West. Discussing the sacrifice of his middle child Jesus Christ brings up an unexpected amount of emotion for Stevens’ God and the audience witnessing that rare quiet moment of contemplation.
Rounding out the trinity—decked out in Valerie M. Webster’s pearly white suits and wings—are Stevens’ silver-haired sidekicks Tim McGeever (Michael) and John Shepard (Gabriel). Javerbaum’s late night talk show roots reveal themselves in the way he utilizes these two characters.
Shepard is divinely droll as God’s in-studio co-host, always backing him up with a Bible verse and supportive gesture. McGeever zips all around the theater displaying the strong improv chops and sarcastic appeal inherent in any successful field correspondent.
God and his wingmen are tons of fun, but the real king of the universe here is director Ted Pappas. He works in mysterious and magical ways ensuring that the pace doesn’t drag for one moment. Simply by placing Stevens in various positions in relation to a white sofa, he transforms it into a therapist’s couch, a majestic throne, and the rock from behind which the serpent slithers in the Garden of Eden.
Whether it’s comedy, drama, classical, or contemporary, you can always count on Pappas to lucidly portray characters and events with tremendous flair. It may have taken God six days to create paradise, but for Pappas and his disciples, it took only 90 minutes.
An Act of God plays at the O’Reilly Theater through July 2nd. For more information, click here.
Special thanks to the Pittsburgh Public Theater for complimentary press tickets. Photos by Michael Henninger.