Story: It’s been a while since God gave Moses the Ten Commandments for His chosen people to follow. Those original documents have worked, more or less, for the better part of three millenia.
Now, though, with the 21st century well underway, God believes it’s time to present Ten Commandments 2.0. Deciding to take the form of accomplished St. Louis actor Alan Knoll, God imparts His wisdom through a revised set of laws which He presents as part of a stand-up comedy routine.
He’s here because the original Ten Commandments “found a readership,” which rather surprised Him. He’s assisted on this new mission by his loyal albeit occasionally questioning archangels, Michael and Gabriel. They even go into the audience seeking questions for The Almighty while The Lord riffs on sundry topics which wander into His immense if sometimes befuddled brain.
In 90 minutes, An Act of God offers plenty to cogitate while also providing life lessons heavily leavened with humor. God will be here at the JCC’s Wool Studio Theatre all month.
Highlights: New Jewish Theatre presents Knoll at his comic best in the St. Louis premiere of this hit comedy written by multiple Emmy Award-winner David Javerbaum. The playwright’s most decidedly irreverent set of observations are designed to challenge and also perhaps provoke reactions by the faithful and non-believers alike.
Other Info: Artistic director Edward Coffield helms this production with a nod to traditional stand-up comedy, from the famed Borscht Belt in the Catskills during the heyday of vaudeville and later to the monologues of today which pepper late-night talk shows as well as comedy clubs. He opens it up as well with Michael’s frequent forays into the audience and Gabriel’s gift with mime.
While Javerbaum cut his comic teeth as an award-winning writer for The Daily Show in Jon Stewart’s heyday as well as The Colbert Report and The Late Late Show with James Corden, those series air for just 30 or 60 minutes. That’s about the right amount of time for any comedy routines. Consider, e.g., how Saturday Night Live pads its weekly 90 minutes with musical numbers as well as having too many bits which fall flat.
So it is with An Act of God, which is really funny for about 60 minutes, humorous for another 15 and then drags to its long-awaited conclusion. After a while, one longs for God to ramp up the action while He seems to endlessly delay (no big deal for Him, but for humans another story) reaching the 10th and final decree.
So, thankfully, a master of humor such as Knoll sprinkles in a liberal dose of his terrific impressions, including Jack Benny, Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan, Marlon Brando and Woody Allen, during the course of his impish stroll about the spacious stage. Hopefully younger audience members can appreciate those as much as we codgers.
The set designed and lit by Josh Smith features a brick wall background with a rectangular sign above stage left with the show’s title in lights. There’s a chair with a side table for water for The Lord to sip, and a series of tables for VIP guests between the regular Wool Theatre seats and the stage.
Costume designer Michele Siler dresses God in a flowing robe, naturally, although Knoll’s socks and shoes are purposefully evident beneath, while she adorns the angels in some rather precious attire, including a wing design on Michael’s back. Michael Perkins adds a well-selected projection design while sound designer Amanda Were peppers her ‘heavenly’ musical selection with the likes of My Sweet Lord and God Only Knows.
Cassidy Flynn and Amanda Wales complement Knoll’s dry wit with their own stylish physical comedy, ratcheting up facial expressions with animated glee as Michael and Gabriel, respectively. Flynn joyously bounds through the audience seeking questioners, some of whom take a good-natured (hopefully) ribbing from the Creator in the process.
Javerbaum’s comedy is laced with clever one-liners, as you’d expect from someone adept at stand-up comedy bits, while God answers age-old questions about the fairness or unfairness of life by proclaiming, “I work in mysterious ways.”
The playwright also penned the lyrics for a tune called I Have Faith in You, which Knoll sings earnestly near the show’s conclusion. The music is by David Schlesinger, with musical staging by Amber Franek and musical supervision by Charles Mueller and Christopher Pratt.
The reboot of the Ten Commandments includes a couple of carryovers as well as several new suggestions, such as “Thou Shalt Separate Me and State” and “Thou Shalt Believe in Thyself,” which sounds a lot like Polonius’ advice to Hamlet.
Javerbaum’s show previously has starred Jim Parsons and Sean Hayes in two different Broadway productions as well as presentations in many cities. It’s definitely a star vehicle for anyone who is up to portraying a divinity.
Knoll’s performance is heavenly enough to forgive the 15 or 20 minutes which could be trimmed from the show to improve its pace and further accentuate its wit. As it is, An Act of God brings a bellyful of laughs as well as food for thought.
Play: An Act of God
Company: New Jewish Theatre
Venue: Wool Theatre, Jewish Community Center, 2 Millstone Campus Drive
Dates: December 5, 6, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 16
Tickets: $42-$45; contact 442-3283 or newjewishtheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Eric Woolsey