Signature Theatre plows new ground in “An Act of God,” unearthing the concept of an unforgiving, disinterested, or even completely absent deity through the deeply dark humor of The Daily Show’s David Javerbaum. Wherever this show has played nationwide, audiences have no doubt heard its premise before: If there is a God, he or she may not care about us humans at all. But those audiences probably haven’t heard this assertion voiced in a theater by God himself — or, rather, by the appealing actor appropriated to embody him.
In this production, following in the steps of renowned comic TV actors Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory” and Sean Hayes of “Will and Grace,” that actor is the vivacious Tom Story. As God announces at the play’s outset: “My essence is formless, for I transcend all dualities, including that of form and formlessness. Yet tonight I have chosen to appear in form — specifically that of Tom Story, beloved D.C. actor and seven-time Helen Hayes nominee.”
Story is more than up to the task. Working with a script composed of epithets worthy of Shakespeare, hammy one-liners, and a few moments of genuine cosmic reflection, he needs to be alternately haughty, witty, endearing, and intelligent. It’s a tall order to almost single-handedly hold the attention of an assembly of humans when, ultimately, your character would smite and damn every one of them to hell without a second thought.
Decked out in a white satin jacquard sport coat by costume designer Robert Croghan that could have been plucked from Liberace’s wardrobe, Story holds court from a fancifully ornamented white tufted loveseat on Daniel Conway’s set: a cross between a game show stage and tarted-up South Beach sitting room. He’s joined by Jamie Smithson as the angel Gabriel, serving as an excessively appreciative sidekick announcer, and Evan Casey as the more skeptical angel Michael, who occasionally dashes into the audience to solicit questions (like “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?”) that are clearly really his own.
Why are God and his angels in Shirlington? As God explains, he has “grown weary of the Ten Commandments in exactly the same way that Don McLean has grown weary of ‘American Pie.’” So, he continues: “Tonight I shall give thee a new Ten Commandments, one that will forever end that uncertainty regarding what it is I desire from humanity that has caused so much bitterness and hatred among you over the millennia, all of which I found very flattering. Thanks again. Means a lot.”
God begins by describing creation: He recalls that he was bored and thought, “Let Me take a brief break from eternity, and devote the better part of a week to creating a universe, and just kind of see what happens.” (In a particularly novel revelation, he notes that he originally populated the Garden of Eden with Adam and Steve.) From there, with steadily escalating irreverence, he unveils his updated commandments along with running commentary on irksome phenomena, such as the utter idiocy of professional athletes thanking him when they score.
With a display of wildly variegated emotion, Story riffs on everything from Biblical history to current events, sustaining his signature energy even without benefit of interplay with fellow actors on the stage. Unfortunately, the script largely relegates Smithson and Casey to interjecting facts or questions and otherwise mugging to accentuate points in Story’s monologue.
Depending on one’s appreciation of Javerbaum’s particular brand of astute but cynical humor, the play is a laugh riot, a mildly amusing diversion, or a downright offensive screed. In fact, one line prompted an audience member to dart from the theater in mid-performance, never to return. And with a script derived from a Twitter feed that evolved into a best-selling book (The Last Testament: A Memoir by God), the challenge of converting a string of jokes (however insightful) into a theatrical experience is clear.
Yet thanks to Story’s charismatic intensity, this cleverly packaged examination of Judeo-Christian beliefs is never dull and often potentially provocative. And to Javerbaum’s credit, its gloomy view of God’s love for humanity is mercifully leavened with a final message of hope.
Signature Theatre presents “An Act of God” through Nov. 26, 2017.
Barbara Wells is a writer and editor for Reingold, a social marketing communications firm. She and her husband live on Capitol Hill.