“Sometimes—there’s God—so quickly!” said Blanche DuBois when she thought she had finally landed a gullible Galahad, and you can say that again now about the fast Broadway return of An Act of God, a one-God show based on the memoir by God (a.k.a. David Javerbaum, head writer of The Daily Show and winner of 13 Emmys).
The Deity, Who rarely—I mean, rarely—makes public appearances on the Main Stem, opened June 6 (D-Day to some) at the Booth Theatre, His second coming in just a tad over a year. As before (Jim Parsons), he has taken the physical form of an Emmy-winning comedian (Sean Hayes) and is expertly directed by Joe Mantello.
Mantello, who may well be the first person ever to direct God and The Humans in a single season, revealed that, contrary to rumor, God does take direction, whether He looks like Parsons or like Hayes. “They’re both incredibly similar,” he pointed out as he waited at the back of the house for the curtain to go up. “They’re both very nice, extremely professional and a joy to be around. It was great fun to direct them both.”
It was An Act of God that kickstarted the 2015-2016 Broadway season last May at that former heathen haven, Studio 54, and it fell just nine days short of doing the honors this season (that is, if you count Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour, which some don’t).
The Gospel According to Javerbaum has varied a bit the second time around. “It’s a year later, so God has new things to say,” Mantello offered by way of an explanation.
Javerbaum called his topical shots sparingly, however. “I did a fair amount of rewriting—just enough,” he admitted. “If you do it artfully, you just change a handful of jokes and make it more topical and make it seem like you’ve rewritten a lot, when, in fact, you just changed a few things here and there. There are practical reasons, too: I didn’t want to write a show where I would have to change half the jokes every year or the old ones would go stale. I don’t have the time or the energy to do that. There are about a half dozen jokes that are like that, and I’m happy to do that.
“Sean, at this point, has the show so much in his heart and in his head and in his spirit, that I trust him completely. I give him some new material, and we work on new jokes. If they work, great. If they don’t work, I know that it’s not because he’s not doing them right, but because the joke isn’t good enough. I can do better. It’s great to have that complete and total faith in the actor. Sean just brings an incredible likeability, enthusiasm and boyishness to the role—and you like him, the same way you liked Jim before. You really like him, and that’s good because it helps go against some of the not-so-likeable qualities of the character as I’ve tried to portray Him.”
The writer, whose only previous brush with Broadway earned him a Tony nomination for his Cry-Baby lyrics, was almost giddy about being back. “If ever I take Broadway for granted, someone just shoot me. It’s just great to be here and to have a world-class comedian-actor performing your words to perfection. I had it last year, and I have it this year in a whole different way. It feels like the work is up there, and the best that you can do is being seen by people in the best possible form on earth.”
Javerbaum plans to stick around until the end of the week to work on The Tonys with James Corden. God, he feels, would want him to do it. “God is a big fan of Broadway. He loves theatre—not just Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. Other shows, too.”
At the Booth, God’s Broadway gig is to revise his Top Ten and update the tablets he gave Charlton Heston. “Thou Shalt Not Tell Others Whom To Fornicate,” a gay concession for the times, made the new cut, as did this stern warning to religious extremists: “Thou Shalt Not Kill in My Name” (“I don’t need your help”). A humanistic God Who made man in His own image, He concludes with: “Thou Shalt Believe In Thyself.”
Interviews were conducted in the lower lobby of The Booth, where five years ago on the opening night of The Seafarer, The Devil (Ciaran Hinds) did his press. By the time Hayes arrived, he was coughing and rasping and showing the vocal strain.
“With any show, eight times a week is difficult,” he conceded, “but, when you believe in the words, it makes it joyful and easier to do—and more fun for the audience.”
Hayes rules his heavenly roost with a short fuse and a pass at benevolence. Woe be it to the late-comers, who get ribbed deliciously (“The bridge or the tunnel, honey?”)
A cellphone, planted under the seat of producer Liz McCann, went off during the performance, and it was promptly confiscated by The Lord, who imperiously tossed it into a goblet of wine. “You’re lucky I’m God and not Patti LuPone,” he groused.
Yes, Hayes confessed, he does feel vulnerable and exposed doing 90 minutes of God stand-up all by his lonesome, but that’s the way he likes it. “I enjoy the challenge of all that,” Hayes said. “I always enjoy the challenge of scaring the sh*t out of me.”
Technically, God is not entirely alone on the stage of the Booth. He is flanked by two angelic flunkies—on the left by Gabriel (whose horn solo seems to have been cut) and on the right by Michael (who pointedly becomes “Mike” when he incurs God’s displeasure).
James Gleason did not get the Gabriel role because he was so terrific in that heavenly comedy, Here Comes Mr. Jordan. That was another James Gleason, and, darn it, no kin. He got it because of his super-sombre voice, which is perfect for telltale scripture reading. “That was the voice I was born with,” Gleason admitted sheepishly. “When I was in grade school, I would get up to answer the nuns, and they would always point me out and say, ‘My God, where did that voice come from?’”
The other angel, Michael, an upstart who gets his wings clipped for insubordination, is played David Josefsberg, who understudied both angels in the previous edition and was last seen on Broadway as the lounge singer in Honeymoon in Vegas.
He stepped up to the role when the production started making the California rounds. “It was really great. First of all, the theatres were huge theatres—the Ahmanson and the Golden Gate. We had some nice California jokes and some great jokes in San Francisco, everything worked really well. And what was different? My wife and children were home while I was in the beautiful, beautiful weather.”
His reward? Javerbaum laid the inevitable Trump joke at his feet. “There were other places he could have put it, but he saved it for me. God blessed me with that line.”
The previous Michael left the part for a role in Waitress that won him awards from the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle—Christopher (“Bring it on, Hamilton”) Fitzgerald. En route to the men’s room, Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t be sending him any notes back stage. “I’m going to text him right now”—and he did, with his free hand.
As for the crowd celerating the opening, another Tony contender in attendance—Noises Off’s Andrea Martin—announced that she would be switching coasts for a while. “I’m abandoning Broadway for a little bit to do a TV series in L.A.,” she said. “It’s called Great News, and Tina Fey is executive-producing it.” She plays the mother of an up-and-coming news producer (Briga Heelan) who reenters the workforce as an intern at the same station where her daughter works. “It’s supposed to be a mid-season replacement at NBC.”
Three people attached to the upcoming musical version of The Honeymooners also made the scene—Michael McGrath (Ralph), Laura Bell Bundy (Trixie) and Joshua Bergasse (choreographer). “All we need now is the house,” bubbled Bundy.
Shuffling across the street from Shuffle Along into the press line were Joshua Henry, who plays Noble Sissle, and Brooks Ashmanskas, who plays the Every[white]man. Other first-nighters: Ana Gasteyer, Scott Wolf, Jane Lynch, Nia Vardalos and the Drama Desk Award-winning one-man showoff east of B’way, Jesse Tyler Ferguson.
One new cast member has been added to this production of An Act of God: The prerecorded Voice of God is delivered by Patrick Page with proper pomp and bombast.