Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
“An Act of God” at the Ahmanson: Faith, Cleverness, and a Challenge
It’s an interesting concept – one that could, I suppose, only be carried off by someone with the experience at satire and irreverence which comes from a background in such as “The Daily Show.” Bring God down to earth, have Him take the form of a well-known actor, and then let Him share, preach, pontificate and even hand down new commandments for the next 90 minutes, with a bit of angelic assistance. Give the enterprise impressive staging and special effects to enhance the humor, and then sit back to see which audience members laugh the most.
Those are the essentials of David Javerbaum’s “An Act of God,” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. Sean Hayes, best known for his award-winning stint as Jack McFarland on “Will and Grace,” is God, or rather has been inhabited by God, who figures that being incorporeal might cause confusion. Hayes makes God chummy and snippy, intimate while offering up gossip, testy when crossed and ready to tackle everything from humanity’s false gods to its overarching judgementalism.
It’s a neat trick and Hayes pulls the thing off with a deceptive sense of ease, even on an opening night when his voice was giving him problems. Assisted by David Josefberg and James Gleason as the angels Michael and Gabriel respectively, he answers “questions” from the audience, interacts with Biblical stories and concepts, and chats about God’s kids – particularly Jesus whose visit to earth impressed his father for reasons you might not expect.
The thing is fairly static, as Hayes sits on a coach most of the time. Michael roams the orchestra section of the audience in order to give the impression of a question and answer session. Gabriel reads snips from the Bible, when asked, and shares God’s sense of humor over some of the more odd elements. Much of the dramatic element comes from Scott Pask’s otherworldly set design and Peter Nigrini’s extremely elaborate and animated projections. Under director Joe Mantello, the whole thing is more of a costumed lecture than a standard play.
But it works. At least, it works if you have some background in what the play is talking about, and a willingness to laugh at something many people are uncomfortable even questioning. The more skeptical, or at least liberal you are in relation to religious belief, the funnier you will find “An Act of God.” Also, the more you know of the items God references during the play, the more humor there is to be pulled from it.
Indeed, on opening night the audience seemed to fall into one of four categories: those who found just about every skewering of religion hysterical, those who laughed at the home truths encased within a discussion of the religion they believe in, those who were left clueless on occasion as they didn’t get the references, and those who were offended that someone would even write something like this. Thus, it depends on how well you handle satire related to – almost literally – sacred cows, as to whether you will find this comedy as funny as it often is.
It is very funny. Hayes is terrific, and at the very end achieves even greater humor in ways you have to see to totally “get.” Josefberg and Gleason enhance the tale with very specific senses of character without ever stealing focus from what has to be the main attraction. The show is fast-paced and engaging, and only when it ends to you realize how long you have been sitting still.
So, use the above as filter, but I thoroughly suggest going to see “An Act of God.” It’s worth it just to watch Sean Hayes do what he does so well, but it is also a chance – particularly for those whose religion is far more open-minded than what the media portrays as Christianity these days – to hear with great humor an alternative to the narrow conservative dogma which has so divided this nation. And yes, Javerbaum not only wrote for Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” he co-authored Stewart’s two “history” books with him. He’s good at poking fun at the stuffier elements of anything, but at this point in time getting people to lighten up on religion seems a good thing to aim for.
What: “An Act of God” When: Through March 13, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with one 2 p.m. performance Thursday, March 10 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $130 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org