The premise for David Javerbaum’s “An Act of God” has a lot of potential.
After a few experiences with it, including at the Bristol Riverside Theater, where the comedy runs through October 13, I wonder — nay, doubt — if that potential can ever be fulfilled.
The show depicts The Almighty as going on the road in the person of whatever actor is cast to play him/her — in Bristol, it’s Kim Wayans — with a nightclub act in which the Ten Commandments are rewritten so humankind might have a better chance of following them.
In revealing these edits, God expresses both disappointment in his highest creation and irritation in things people do in his name, such as saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes. He also issues a weak but genuine mea culpa for being alternately too lazy, too angry, too amused, or too busy to endow the world with universal peace, health, and happiness.
Javerbaum has packed a lot into “An Act of God.” Michael, one of two archangels God has as, shall we say, his wingmen, asks questions that mirror what people might want to know if they had access to God — “Why create anything in the first place?,” “What about evolution?,” “Why allow war, disease, poverty, and other pestilence?,” “Who was on Earth, whether in Eden or Nod, to procreate if Adam and Eve had only sons?”
These are matters about which people can be legitimately inquisitive. Rather than finding clever ways to address them, Javerbaum has God become increasingly angry and dismissive towards Michael, employing lordly temperament instead of divine wit, and depending more on “wrath” jokes than crafting pointed comments.
In general, Javerbaum has God dodge everything that might be interesting and dwells more on lists of human foibles or holy grievances that touch on many humorous bases but never snowball into the rollicking evening one might expect from a parade of regal quips, bits, complaints, kvetches, and ironies.
Is the show funny? Yes, but not in a way that prompts laughing out loud. At least, not at Bristol, and not at anywhere else I’ve seen this show.
The comedy is there, but most of what God says are ideas you consider, or even enjoy having brought forward, but that require no further reaction.“An Act of God” is a list of ideas.
A lot of what Javerbaum presents tickles, but then falls flat with nowhere to go, nothing to build on. Things God says may have an amusing spin, but they remain intellectual and even seem labored.
My verdict is “Act of God” reads better on a page than it plays on a stage. I’ve watched performers try to gain traction with the script, but everything stays too middle-of-the-road, too much like a clever dinner table conversation, in which people are trying to top each other with things God might consider, as opposed to a full-blown comedy act.
In spite of this, the Bristol production can entertain. Javerbaum’s list of ideas is long and can be amusing.
Also, actors may approach Javerbaum’s material in different ways. God can be an all-out Borscht Belt tummler, a stand-up comedian. He or she can be coy or subtle in a Jack Benny sort of way or persnickety like a Mother Superior or military officer addressing their charges. “Act of God” might work best if tossed off like a slight flapdoodle, which on one level it is.
Kim Wayans and director Susan D. Atkinson have opted for the majestic. The tall, willowy Wayans appears all in white, rather formal and evangelical but with some sexy swagger in her gown’s design.
Wayans is a snide and admonishing God. She is a deity you don’t want to challenge or mess with. You can see she is ready to smite and let you know who’s boss. Woe betide a latecomer or cell phone user.
In another mood, Wayans reminds the audience they were made in God’s image. Javerbaum’s God admits to messing up details, fudging reports, and being occasionally inattentive, so, Wayans logics, people in general do.
On opening night, Wayans looked as if she were still growing in her part and finding her rhythm. She is enough of a sketch comedian to fill voids and add sound effects and withering looks to God’s repertory. Developing more of a stand-up approach might help.
Atkinson’s production is most successful in the portrayal of the archangels, Michael (Benjamin Brown) and Gabriel (Peter DeLaurier), that accompany God on this appearance. Brown is wonderful at demanding what Michael wants to know, cowering and braving admonition at once, and gives a strong physical performance.
DeLaurier, acting as God’s stage manager of sorts, is marvelous at the wink, hand gesture, subtle direction, knowing grin, and dozens of facial moves, including indications of approval, that keep God on track. Atkinson shrewdly has Brown and DeLaurier act as backup singers and dancers for a musical number Wayans’ God does near “An Act of God’s” end.
Jason Simms’ set looks like an elegant church, including details from the Sistine Chapel. Linda B. Stockton’s diaphanous white dress with Greek goddess touches suits Wayans and is right for a nightclub or prayer meeting.
An Act of God, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, October 13, Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. $43 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.