December 6, 2017

George Street Playhouse Presents Kathleen Turner in “An Act of God”; Bible Verses Are Altered in “Daily Show” Writer David Javerbaum’s Comedy

“AN ACT OF GOD”: Performances are underway for George Street Playhouse’s production of “An Act of God.” Directed by David Saint, the comedy runs through December 23. God (Kathleen Turner, center) takes a phone call — and a selfie — with archangels Michael (Stephen DeRosa, left) and Gabriel (Jim Walton, right). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

Film and stage luminary Kathleen Turner is starring in An Act of God at the George Street Playhouse. David Javerbaum, the former executive producer of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, and a writer whose theatrical credits include the musicals Cry-Baby and Suburb, adapted the show from his 2011 book The Last Testament: A Memoir by God.

Given the playwright’s previous work (in addition to The Daily Show, Javerbaum has written for the satirical newspaper and website The Onion), it should come as little surprise that this “God” is a contemporary, world-weary cynic who utters wisecracks that are unlikely to be heard in a play that one might expect to be performed in a church parish hall. This may test the comfort level of some audience members, but the clever script rewards those who are willing to engage with it on its own terms.

Javerbaum takes advantage of the creative possibilities offered by live theater. The fourth wall is broken, as the characters mention the theater’s location in New Brunswick, and interact with the audience. (“Try to pay attention. That seat cost way too much money for you to let your mind wander,” God chides a spectator.) God interrupts the performance to answer a call on a smartphone, acknowledging that his — or her — voice sounds like Kathleen Turner.

An Act of God is structured as a late-night talk show rather than as a traditional play. There is not a linear plot, although a cohesive structure comes in the form of an edited list of the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not take my name in vain” is unchanged (doing so “cheapens the brand”) along with a few others, while many have been replaced. “Thou shalt separate Me and state” and “Thou shalt honor thy children” are among the new ones.

The Ten Commandments are not the only linchpins of scripture to be reimagined. In the world of this show, Adam and Eve originally were “Adam and Steve,” but one of the men had to be changed into a woman after the forbidden fruit was eaten. God tells us that Jesus was the second of three children (“and acted like it”), and chose to come down to Earth; nobody made a reservation at the “Bethlehem Bed & Breakfast.”

There are ample references to contemporary culture and issues. The president is mentioned, as are sports teams. “Celebrities are my chosen people. I know that Jews are also my chosen people; there’s a lot of overlap,” God remarks. Steve Jobs is mentioned, and the subject of computers is crucial near the end.

This “God” is brash and at times wrathful, though this is tempered by moments of introspection and even self-doubt. When the show premiered on Broadway in 2015, the part was performed by The Big Bang Theory star Jim Parsons; Sean Hayes filled the role for the return engagement in 2016.

For this production, director David Saint — who is artistic director of the George Street Playhouse — wanted a female star. “I started feeling how interesting it would be, given the conceit of the piece, if God was played by a woman,” Saint writes in the program notes. Casting director Pat McCorkle suggested Kathleen Turner.

This casting decision is validated by the nuanced performance given by Turner, whose previous theatrical productions include Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Graduate, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and High. With a commanding stage presence, and a raspy voice that recalls Katharine Hepburn or Tallulah Bankhead, she delivers her lines with a mixture of edgy bravado and weary self-reflection that serves the script well.

Two archangels, Gabriel and Michael, provide a supporting cast for this “one-God show.” To Gabriel, Jim Walton brings the smooth, flamboyant intensity of a televangelist. He spends much of his time at a podium, reading Bible verses that serve as opportunities for God to reply with witty ripostes. Gabriel unctuously reads “Let there be light,” and God interjects, “one of those light bulb moments!”

By contrast, Michael is a figurative and literal representative of the audience. He leaves the stage to stand near different spectators, ostensibly taking their questions. Unlike the sycophantic Gabriel, Michael himself asks some probing questions, demanding to know how God can permit cancer and other tragedies. As Michael, Stephen DeRosa aptly mixes loyalty with frustration.

God loses patience with Michael’s questions, flippantly quipping that “I work in mysterious ways.” Later, Michael’s persistence causes God to smite him with thunderbolts, rendered to entertaining effect by lighting designer Jason Lyons and sound designer Scott Killian.

As a director, Saint has given the production panache and a keen sense of comic timing. His staging underlines the dynamic between the three characters, inescapably placing Michael at the bottom of a three-tier hierarchy.

Surrounded by painted clouds that pepper a bright blue sky, Timothy R. Mackabee’s set is a cross between a chapel and a studio for a live television show. As God reads the (revised) Ten Commandments, they appear on a rotating screen that recalls Family Feud. God alludes to that series: “Let’s play the Feud! Number one ….”

Both in style and color palette, the glittery white costumes by Esther Arroyo complement the set. They resemble a televangelist’s outfit, with angels’ wings that look like they belong in a Christmas pageant. For all of the liberties the show takes with Christian theology, it makes some astute observations about the “God” that often is fashioned by contemporary culture.

An Act of God is not a musical. However, the show concludes with “I Have Faith in You,” a song with lyrics by Javerbaum and music by Adam Schlesinger (Javerbaum’s collaborator on Cry-Baby). The cast’s delivery of this number provides a rare moment of warmth, while honoring the play’s acerbic tone.

Enjoyment of An Act of God may depend partly on the ease with which audiences are able to accept the script’s treatment of its subject matter, as well as some explicit dialogue. However, the show succeeds with an inventive concept, polished production, and a tour de force performance by Kathleen Turner.