Author David Javerbaum is a stalwart of late night American television, once executive producer and head writer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and, today, a producer of The Late Late Show with James Corden. In 2010, as a means of publicising his novel, The Last Testament: A Memoir, he began ‘ghostwriting’ for God, creating the parody @TheTweetOfGod Twitter account, which ended up with millions of followers.
Two-and-a-half years ago, the stage adaptation of Javerbaum’s novel, entitled An Act of God, arrived on stage at New York City’s Studio 54, starring Jim Parsons (of TV’s The Big Bang Theory). Presented by Darlinghurst Theatre Company, the play is now having its Australian premiere at (appropriately) the Eternity Playhouse which, in its former life, was the Burton Street Tabernacle.
An Act of God is an audience with God who, on this occasion, has “chosen to appear in the form of three-time Helpmann Award-winner, Mitchell Butel”. He’s flanked by his two archangels, Michael (Alan Flower) and Gabriel (Laura Murphy), and has returned to earth for the purpose of making a significant proclamation. God tells us that, over the centuries, he’s “grown weary of the Ten Commandments in exactly the same way that Don McLean has grown weary of ‘American Pie’.”
In fact, God says that he’s ready to hand down a new set of 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”. And this time around, there’s no Moses to serve as the conduit through whom the Ten Commandments will be shared with the world; this time, God is communicating his message to the people directly.
Over the course of 75 minutes, in revealing his new Ten Commandments, God paints a picture of a man misunderstood, whose words have been misinterpreted and used as justification for all sorts of behaviour. He enlists Michael, who he describes as “his greatest advocate for humanity”, to take audience questions; he enjoys laughing with Gabriel at the human race’s understanding of one specific proclamation; and he makes abundantly clear the absurdity of praying to him for the purpose of impacting the outcome of sporting contests.
Co-directed by Butel and Richard Carroll (who was recently at the helm of the Sydney Theatre Award-winning production of Calamity Jane), An Act of God is an engaging piece that compels reflection on the role of religion in the world. Its misuse and abuse, the adoption of didactics that are used to control and demand conformity, the cherry picking of doctrines to legitimise particular causes, and the guilt and shame that belief can instil far removed from the advertised equilibrium that adherence to religious teaching is supposed to promote, are at its core. It’s not riotously funny, and some gags land better than others, but it’s a good, well-structured satirical script that advocates autonomy and self-belief, rather than slavish submission to the supernatural. Butel and Carroll’s added local references include some in-jokes for theatre buffs and industry attendees (and a brief nod to the now-defunct Theatre Nepean).
As God, Butel is immensely entertaining and impeccably delivers each line in portraying a God that is witty, but far less perfect than some would imagine. He does well in endearing himself to us, but also in giving off the air of an obnoxious Hollywood star, loudly protesting he just wants the people to see the person behind the celebrity. Flower and Murphy have only fleeting opportunities to contribute, but both of these excellent performers are nevertheless welcome additions to the cast.
An Act of God reminds us of that of which humanity is capable – at both ends of the spectrum – and encourages us to take more cues from ourselves in determining how to move forward.
AN ACT OF GOD – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until Sunday 25 February, 2018
Times: Tue – Sat: 7:30pm; Sun: 5pm: Saturday matinees: 17 & 24 February, 3pm
Prices: Tickets from $38
Tickets: Book online here or call (02) 8356 9987