Just in time for the holidays, God (or G-d, if you’re Chosen) has returned to earth for only the second time in recorded history. This time, the creator of all heaven and earth appears for our entertainment and enlightenment, via Arizona Theatre Company’s second installment of their new season. And in David Javerbaum’s hyper-humorous An Act of God, the Almighty is in fine company: She comes to us in the form of stage and television star Paige Davis, who’s directed by Oscar-nominated actress and director Marsha Mason and joined by James Gleason, one of the stars of a recent Broadway production of this same show.
In this relentlessly wry one-act (get it?) by the former executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the Maker is here to put right mankind’s misunderstandings about Her writing and Her agenda for Earth. She does so by grumping about the Ten Commandments, many of which She rewrites on the spot. “I’ve grown weary of the Ten Commandments in the same way Don McLean has grown weary of ‘American Pie,’” She explains, before launching into a lot of liturgical hee-hawing adapted from Javerbaum’s bestselling book The Last Testament: A Memoir by God. She’s brought along a pair of angels: Gabriel (Gleason), who recites from a gorgeous Gutenberg Bible, and Michael (Max Lawrence), who wanders the audience pretending to take questions from us until he begins asking his own, which challenge The Father’s mean-spirited overlording: “Why is there suffering?” he demands. “Where were you during the Holocaust?”
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There’s cuteness on Lauren Helpern’s pristine and handsome set: Paige, chosen as a vessel for God’s message, “has no idea she’s here.” There’s the inevitable sneering at Donald Trump, a jibe greeted warmly by the opening-night audience. And there are a surprising number of self-referential jabs at the Lord’s fondness for death and mayhem. There are comic revelations, too: Celebrities are God’s chosen people (Jews, too, “But there’s a lot of overlap,” She reminds us), but She would like it if they would stop thanking Her for winning games or having talent. Jehovah’s favorite musical is Cabaret, and for a perfectly disreputable reason, too. And The Creator confesses to having only once answered a prayer, posed as a question: Why do bad things happen to good people? (“To even out the good things that happen to bad people,” of course.)
Allah also bitches about Her own fallow period. “I was being God, but I wasn’t really Godding,” She complains. “I wasn’t creating, or destroying, or judging anyone, which I’d always wanted to try.” She takes some time to recap Her greatest achievement: the creation of the world, as outlined in Genesis. This includes a story about the world’s first couple, Adam and Steve, and reveals why it was necessary to reconfigure Steve as a female after a lispy asp messed up Eden. (Paul Rudnick offered a similar riff in his The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told.)
The comic conceit here is our mortal use and misuse of Biblical belief and faith in Christ, about which The Man Upstairs is both gently admonishing and downright bitchy, because our imperfections are really screwing up His plan. But the genius in Javerbaum’s writing isn’t his ability to riff on the evils of sin or the absurdity of Noah’s ark. It’s that it’s never clear whether we’re being asked to take any of this seriously. It’s possible to hear this ornery oration as either a clever criticism of faith and religion, or a comic rehash of the irrefutable truth of God’s existence. That’s some kind of miracle.
An Act of God continues through December 4 at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Call 602-326-6899 or visit www.arizonatheatre.org.