UPDATE, 10 PM: Adds Betty Buckley review at end.
Hal Holbrook mimicked Mark Twain of Hannibal, Missouri; Tovah Feldshuh did Golda Meir from Kiev and Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Julie Harris played Emily Dickinson from Amherst, Massachusetts. Now comes Jim Parsons perhaps responding to a Higher Calling, playing God from Grossinger’s, of Borscht Belt, New York. I would add “Oy,” but that would raise the comic level of An Act Of God a notch or two. No, really.
The 90-minute show, in a 13-week run at Studio 54, is an adaptation by multiple Emmy winner and Daily Show With Jon Stewart head writer David Javerbaum, from his book of the same name. Javerbaum also runs @TheTweetOfGod, which claims nearly 2 million Chosen Tweeters. Here, The Almighty wishes to set us straight on certain facts regarding the Creation, Adam and Eve, the story of Noah’s ark, Jesus and other popular tales that he warrants have changed over the centuries as if in a game of telephone, distorting His true intentions.
While he’s at it, he’d like to revamp several of the Ten Commandments, which apparently could use some updating. Not all of them, to be sure, and certainly not the first in His Top Ten List, the one about having no other gods before Him. That one’s a keeper for sure. But the others could use some tweaking.
Under the smooth, even convivial direction of Joe Mantello, Parsons (The Big Bang Theory) lounges on Scott Pask’s immaculate, vaguely Mount Sinai-ishe set, attended by favorite, bewinged angels Gabriel (Tim Kazurinsky) and Michael (Christopher Fitzgerald), the former given to mischief and the latter more subservient.
Much of the humor seems familiar, though I realize as I write this that some is understandably recycled from The Daily Show: “I loved making the dry land. Loved it. Forming the continents, sculpting the mountains, carving the canyons, stippling the archipelagos and shaping Florida into what even then I pretty much knew was going to be a penis.” A lot more seems phoned in. (Adam & Steve? Really?) Some of it could be described as edgy, though to my mind it was merely tasteless, not to say pandering (“People say, ‘Why did you let the Holocaust happen?’ Well, no Holocaust … no Cabaret.”)
There are jokes on the theme of calling out His name during sex and sneezing, neither of which he much cares for, and some skepticism about that “Now I lay me down to sleep” bedtime prayer: “Even I consider it bizarre that the last words on children’s lips before they go to sleep would address the prospect of their own premature death. They are children. They should be asking Me for ponies.”
Parsons delivers all this polished patter expertly, with a dry sense of the absurd, which makes most of the show mildly entertaining. But if you want to meet the Deity on the edge, Randy Newman’s “That’s Why I Love Mankind” and Dan Bern’s “God Said No” wrap the whole deal up in about seven exquisitely Rapturous minutes. I command you to listen to them on Spotify, and spend the money you saved on tickets to Fun Home or Hand To God.
SPEAKING OF TONY-AWARD WINNERS, Betty Buckley (1983, Best Actress In A Featured Role In A Musical, for Cats) is at Joe’s Pub in the Public Theater only through this weekend, singing her capacious heart out in a program she’s calling “Dark Blue-Eyed Blues.” I would call it a career-defining show except that it is in fact a career re-defining show. I can’t think of anyone, certainly no other star of Buckley’s magnitude, who’s made a personal mission of recreating herself so regularly, so astutely and with as much passion and joy as she has. Backed by an inspired quartet led by music director and pianist Christian Jacob, she dives into a roster of diverse classics from Duke Ellington (“Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me,” “Sophisticated Lady”) to Cole Porter (“I Get A Kick Out Of You”) to Joni Mitchell “(Both Sides Now”) and Leonard Cohen (“Bird On The Wire”). Along the way, she sings Stephen Sondheim’s survival anthem, “I’m Still Here,” which she recently knocked out of the park in a “Follies” concert at London”s Royal Albert Hall.
It’s a beautifully curated collection full of high points but for me, the most haunting came during the wistfully delicate folk lullaby “All The Pretty Horses.” It lasted only a few seconds but is was a gaze into the distance that becalmed this great singer’s entire visage and that I realized I’d seen before. It was Grizabella’s moonlit look at the close of “Memory.”
Buckley returns to New York in a few weeks to begin rehearsals for a revival of Grey Gardens that will run later this summer in Sag Harbor, on the East End of Long Island. Another re-invention, most assuredly.