Two years ago, I took a morning off work to attend my childhood rabbi’s funeral. Ours wasn’t an observant family, and I really didn’t have any relationship with the rabbi beyond my decades-ago bar mitzvah, but Jehiel Orenstein, of Congregration Beth El in South Orange, N.J., was a nice man and a good man, a liberal and broad-minded and cosmopolitan one — someone I occasionally bumped into in Broadway lobbies — and in any case my father couldn’t cancel an appointment that day and I was available to accompany my mother. I remember the eulogy given by his daughter, Debra Orenstein, also a Conservative rabbi in suburban New Jersey. She invoked what she called his motto: “Enjoy life.” Simple and straightforward — and not especially religious.
David Javerbaum, a former head writer for “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” is also an Orenstein alumnus, and also an unpious one. (Javerbaum made a point of citing him—“I had a wonderful rabbi” — in a recent Times profile.) He has written a new Broadway comedy, called “An Act of God,” that opened last night at Studio 54, starring the exceedingly charming sitcom star Jim Parsons as not exactly God himself but rather the vessel God has chosen through which to communicate with humans, as he presents his new and updated Ten Commandments.
And if “Act of God” can at times seem like an overextended, 90-minute standup, it’s also very, very funny and carries a sweet message not unfamiliar to fans of “The Book of Mormon”: There’s a lot about religion that’s silly, but its basic points all make sense. In Javerbaum’s new Commandments, final two are: “Thou shalt not believe in Me,” and “Thou shalt believe in thyself.” Rabbi Orenstein might not be on board with No. 9, but he’d fully support No. 10.
God, you see, is bored of the old Commandments, “in exactly the same way that Don McLean has grown weary of ‘American Pie,’” as he explains. (God, presumably, does not depend on royalty checks.) “I’m not some one-list wonder,” he says.
And so he has, in his omnipresent ineffability, chosen Parsons as his vehicle — “For lo, I have endowed him with a winning, likeable personality; and know of a certainty that your apprehension of My depthless profundities will be aided by his offbeat charm” — to deliver these new Commandments, directly, without Moses as an interlocutor this time, to the Jewish people: “That’s why I’m here on Broadway.” As Parsons-channeling-God delivers these new Commandments, he riffs on history, on politics, on the stories in the Bible, on what he really means, and on how and why he does what he does.
Turns out God really did create Adam and Steve, but after that business with the apple they were punished by being turned into a married couple with kids, hence turning Steve into Eve so she could bear children. (That business about a man not lying with a man as with a woman? Advice. “When you’re with a man you can straight up lie,” God explains, “but if you’re lying to a woman you need to be more subtle about it.”)
Why did God allow the Shoah? Simple: He’s a theater fan, and “no Holocaust, no ‘Cabaret.’”
Javerbaum is an expert comedy writer; the man knows how to hone a one-liner. He has won 13 Emmy Awards. Now a producer on James Corden’s late-night show, he also holds a master’s in musical-theater composition and shared a Tony nomination for best original score for his Broadway debut, “Cry-Baby.”
“An Act Of God” has received, unsurprisingly, a divine staging. The sure-handed Joe Mantello directs, and Parsons is ably supported by Christopher Fitzgerald and Tim Kazurinksy at the archangels Michael and Gabriel. (Gabe provides sonorous Bible readings as requested by God, working from a 1455 Gutenberg that God dubs “a beaut.” Mike takes some questions from the audience and argues with God on humanity’s behalf; Fitzgerald makes him a puckish smartass.
The celestial set, by Scott Pask, has God lounging on a free-form white sofa that could be lifted from Liza’s, arranged in front of a soaring white staircase on which Frankie Avalon would feel comfortable serenading a beauty-school dropout. But the show rests on Parsons’s geeky shoulders, and the good news is that he’s heavenly. His God is august but approachable, self-impressed but self-deprecating;,majestic but neighborly. Parsons’s homey Texas drawl might be the key, but it helps that he can revel in the role’s shtickiness without letting it become unkosher hamminess.
There’s a lot else here that works. The jokes come quickly, and the commandment-by-commandment analysis gives the play a structure. God gets introspective as the show goes on. “I made mankind in My image, and I am an asshole,” he rants to Michael. “The evidence is in that book and all around you. I am a jealous, petty, sexist, racist, mass-murdering narcissist.” The play even has lessons, about tolerance and self-acceptance and not taking received wisdom too seriously.
But Javerbaum’s half-hearted attempts at gravitas don’t quite pan out. In the end, as surely he knows, “An Act of God” is hilarious but slim. It will entertain, but it won’t inspire worship, or even an epiphany. Still, that’s probably OK. Orenstein, who had the timing and delivery of a Catskills pro, would tell you to enjoy it.
Jesse Oxfeld has written about theater for the New York Observer and New York Magazine.