One might assume that Jim Parsons has already reached a state of apotheosis with a No. 1 CBS television show (“The Big Bang Theory”) and a supersize salary to match. But rather than rest on his broadcast laurels, he’s treading the boards on Broadway during his summer TV hiatus in a new play called “An Act of God” in which he plays himself — and yes, God.
The premise is a simple one: God has taken over the body of actor Jim Parsons in order to set some things straight with his often confused humanity. “In the desert I appeared as a burning bush. On Broadway, I appear as Sheldon Cooper. Know thy audience.” Jim/Sheldon/God, a divinely comic trinity, hold forth at Studio 54, now a Broadway theater, but once an infamous den of iniquity where, in its heyday, the discerning doorman no doubt would have turned God away.
In the mien of Parsons, God has some things he wants to get off his chest. He parks his divine rear-end on his white celestial couch, often flanked by his two archangels, Gabriel and Michael, and has at it. God’s pedagogy is to re-fashion the 10 Commandments, of which he has grown weary, “in exactly the same way that Don McLean has grown weary of ‘American Pie.’” This time, “there will be no Moses, no intermediary. I’ve decided to give my new commandments directly to the Jewish people. That’s why I’m here on Broadway.” Ba dum. You get the idea.
For 90 intermission-less minutes, the audience/congregation gets a private tutorial from the man Himself about Biblical and theological concepts that supposedly we have been misinterpreting all these years. You may be surprised to learn that it really was “Adam and Steve” who originally inhabited the Garden of Eden at Creation.
The result of Steve eating from “The Tree of the Knowledge That Your Lifestyle Is Sinful” is “that I now inflict upon thee the harshest punishment possible: Transforming thee from carefree young lovers living in the heart of everything, to a married couple with kids stuck in the suburbs.” Steve will now become a woman but, “fear not, the operation is relatively standard.” Expecting a Bruce Jenner joke? Expectation fulfilled.
“An Act of God” — adapted from a book by “Daily Show” and “David Letterman” writer David Javerbaum — is a witty, humor-filled monologue (save an occasional angelic annunciation) that pokes fun at some suspect theological and biblical concepts that even God wonders how we’ve embraced, like the Noah’s Ark story. “I did not ask Noah to put two of every animal on board the ark, and the reason is simple: It makes no sense! I mean, how would they fit?” Rather, God says, that he said to put two puppies on board the ark because when you’re on board an ark for a month, “it’s nice to have some cutie-patooties to ease the tension.”
The best thing about “An Act of God” is God Himself, Jim Parsons, who puts his characteristic droll comedic timing to expert use. In the hands of a less-skilled actor, this celestial riff may have grown more wearisome.
Still, the more theological sophisticated may be slightly put-off that God seems to address only the fundamentalists in his Studio 54 house of worship. Certainly the more religiously astute discern religious myth from literal interpretation.
Also, when Michael the Archangel becomes combative with God, insisting that God answer the perennial theodicy conundrum of innocent suffering, you may long for a more nuanced answer than God saying: “I am a jealous, petty, sexist, racist, mass-murdering narcissist.” Or perhaps that answer satisfies as much as God’s ambiguous answer to Job from the whirlwind? You be the judge.
The end of “An Act of God” is a bit of a letdown. After spending this intimate one-on-one (really one-on-one thousand) time with God, He takes his leave of us, suggesting that He’s really our creation anyway, and that we don’t need Him anymore: “You’re all grown up now. I used to do the flooding. Now you do it on your own. You people are amazing.”
You may take your leave from Studio 54 longing for a Second Act that seems beyond the scope of a writer adept at penning engaging Top 10 lists and one-liners, but less so in addressing nuanced theological issues, even while poking fun at them.
But, then again, this is Broadway and not the University of Notre Dame.
The Rev. Edward L. Beck is a Roman Catholic priest of the Passionist Community and an on-air religion commentator for CNN.