When the play An Act of God opened at Pittsburgh Public Theater, in the heart of downtown’s Cultural District, there were protesters on the sidewalk. Led by young folks from a conservative Catholic lay group, they displayed a banner that read “Blasphemy Is Not Culture.”
The protest ran its course peacefully, but An Act of God runs through July 2, leaving two questions for those who might consider seeing this comedy. How blasphemous is it? And how funny?
Opinions may vary on both counts, depending on your spiritual sense and your sense of humor. I’ll render my own reactions shortly. In case you should need them after reading the description below.
The Razzle-Dazzle, the Fornication Policy, the Gum
An Act of God has a simple plot: God makes a rare appearance to announce a new, updated version of the Ten Commandments. It’s all done in the high-dazzle style of a live TV special—something like “America’s Got a Talented God,” you might say—and the show starts with a nifty metaphysical gag.
Actor Marcus Stevens, strutting exuberantly to center stage in his role as God, explains that he, God, is of course a transcendent being, beyond form or formlessness—but at present, in order to communicate to us mortals, he has chosen to take the form of the “witty and likable” actor Marcus Stevens.
This role reversal (or whatever you’d call it) is a bit of a head-spinner, and it sets up the rest of the play nicely. It invites you to, well, believe that the bubbly fellow spouting one-liners onstage could actually be the Almighty trying to act accessible.
God introduces his sidemen. They’re the archangels Gabriel (John Shepard), who will read from Scripture at key junctures, and Michael (Tim McGeever), who will solicit and relay questions to God from the audience. (Don’t bother thinking of any to ask, though. The Q&A segments are scripted.)
Then we’re rolling. God shows off his repertoire of Groucho Marx-ist wisecracks, such as “The Bible is 100 percent accurate. Especially when thrown at close range.” And with much fanfare, he reveals the new and improved Commandments. One is “Thou shalt not kill in My name,” which God elucidates by noting that he needs no help from amateurs: He is quite good at making people die.
Another is “Thou shalt not tell others whom to fornicate.” We learn that God is just “not that interested!!” in watching over our icky sex lives, nor does he care about the sexual distinctions we observe: “Gay, straight, bisexual, transgender—thou art all equally smite-able in my eyes.”
So in some respects, here we have a liberal/progressive God. But he’s also a tyrannical, vengeful, old-time-religion God, showing his dark side whenever we’re tempted to feel too chummy with him.
He chews out Michael for chewing gum on duty, muttering at the angel’s irreverence. And when Michael, on behalf of the audience, tries to point out apparent contradictions in God’s M.O., God responds thunderously. The stage lights flicker and sound effects rumble while he reminds us, in a deep-throated Deity voice, that he works in “mysterious ways.”
Where did this whole thing come from? A lot of it came from Twitter.
Billions of Kills, a Beef, and a Character Analysis
Playwright David Javerbaum is an Emmy-winning TV writer (“The Daily Show with Jon Stewart”) who launched the God trip as a sideline. In 2011, Javerbaum published a book titled The Last Testament: A Memoir by God, and opened a companion Twitter account, @TheTweetOfGod.
The tweets were good. They included political zingers: “The problem with ‘We, the People’ is you, the people.” They ranged from can’t-miss offers (“Retweet this and you’ll go to heaven. Yes, the standards are now that low”) to ominous warnings that when God aims, he doesn’t miss: “I have 102,734,242,901 confirmed kills.”
And lo, since the first commandment of the entertainment industry is “Thou shalt milk good ideas to the uddermost,” the prophet Javerbaum thenceforth wrote An Act of God. The play premiered in New York’s Studio 54 in 2015 with Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory” as God, then moved to Broadway, where Sean Hayes of “Will & Grace” inherited the role. Stevens—a New York-based actor and Point Park University graduate—got the call in Pittsburgh, thus imparting yet another distinctive personality to He Who Rules All Persons.
The role is demanding. Although An Act of God uses some great material that once was graven in God’s tweets, and adds some new zingers, theater is a different medium. What’s lost is the impact of tight, terse statements coming at you one by one. There, the brevity of each one’s wit can shine in isolation. The play strings a bunch of gems together, along with lesser God gags that are either sophomoric or heard-‘em-before, and a narrative built of such granular stuff can start to feel slushy and aimless. At times, the play felt that way to me. There were times when I found myself waiting for the next Commandment to come up, already.
More than bad-a-bing sketch patter is needed for a really good feature-length piece—and more is possible. What’s gained is the chance to do things that can’t be done at tweet-length. Like, to spin an in-depth and intriguing character study of the main character … who in this case happens to be God.
That job falls to both the playwright and actor. And believe it or not, in the darnedest way, they largely succeed. The God we get in An Act of God is capricious and very self-contradictory. He flips from silly to serious. He’s all over the place. He can appear to be such a mess that he’s inscrutable—but wait a minute. That’s the point, isn’t it?
The Great Spirit, if he/she does exist, literally is all over the place. And as for inscrutability: isn’t the play’s big joke a joke on anyone who claims to understand God? (In some circles, that’s considered blasphemy!)
But take heart; I haven’t spoiled the play for you. It has more levels and twists than the big joke just mentioned. I will not reveal what happens in the later scenes.
I can guess, however, what will come next in Javerbaum’s God franchise. It’s going to be An Act of God with a woman in the lead. Meanwhile, if you don’t mind an unevenly written satire, check out The Public’s production. Stevens mans up the part manfully; Shepard’s Gabriel and McGeever’s Michael are suitably angelic.
Closing Credits and Ticket Info
An Act of God is directed for Pittsburgh Public Theater by Ted Pappas, the company’s Producing Artistic Director. Scenic design is by Michael Schweikardt, costuming by Valerie M. Webster, lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski, and sound by Zach Moore.
Through July 2 at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. For show times and tickets, visit The Public on the web or call 412-316-1600.
Photos by Michael Henninger.
Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.