God famously transcends form and formlessness, but for a stand-up show, you need a body on the stage. And so for this limited engagement in Portland, God takes the form of local actress and “zaftig housewife from Falmouth” Laura Houck. Styled up in a chic white suit, with coiffed white hair and abundant diamonds, God holds forth on everything we don’t know about Adam, Noah’s ark, and what we shouldn’t say when someone sneezes, in An Act of God, directed by Brian P. Allen at Good Theater.
Despite God’s transcendence of all dualities, given her temporary vessel, we’ll refer to her as “she.” The role isn’t written specifically for a woman (Jim Parsons originated the role), and I applaud Allen’s choice of Houck, whose wit, poise, and zing are pitch-perfect for just such a big-deal celebrity God. She struts and frets across a lavishly empyrean set (in Craig Robinson’s stellar set design): floating panels of storybook blue skies and creamy clouds; tall crescent moons framing the stage; and, atop a robin’s-egg-blue dais, a bright white wicker throne. From here, assisted by angel stage assistants Gabriel (Paul Haley) and Michael (Michael Lynch), God gossips, chastises, tells god-jokes, takes questions from the audience, and, to clear up some of our worst misconceptions, presents us with a new and improved Ten Commandments.
It may or may not surprise you to learn that God is not all that likable. She’s vain, grandiose, callous, and impatient. Her real chosen people, she says, are celebrities like herself. She relishes her long history of smiting and killing. When Michael gets too curious about a few theological inconsistencies, God sends some kind of beam to rip off one of his wings. Thus, through God’s one-liners, recollections, and castigations, playwright David Javerbaum’s script sends up the cruel, erratic, jealous, Biblical version of God.
As it does, we hear some revisionism around creation and homosexuality, are entreated to stop speaking God’s name during orgasm, and hear God describe prayer as, in one of the show’s better turns of phrase, “such a vague concept, a hodgepodge of ritual and meditation and panhandling.” God’s jokes can be groaners: she quips that it was neither chicken nor egg but rooster that came first; she remembers wanting to “go Old Testament” on Jesus’ tormentors. Other jokes land a little uncomfortably – God explains that, at the request of producers, “that’s the last you’ll be hearing about Islam tonight”; she relishes a gotcha trick she plays on scientists before sending them to hell. The script is smarter and most acute around topics such as guns and America. “If it seems I’m addressing a certain country, it’s because I am,” she says, before excoriating our nation’s special affinity for invoking god in otherwise secular recreational activities. More rarely does God depart from the comic vein, but in one affecting moment, she describes Jesus’ satisfaction as he learned the little things of being human.
This wide-ranging routine constitutes the bulk of the show, and Houck sustains the momentum, even through God’s less funny dad-jokes, with brio, poise, and remarkable energy; she keeps God’s act moving and turning. And Haley and Lynch are game as her angel wingmen: Haley’s Gabriel, behind a lectern, archly delivers Biblical verses and rim-shots for God’s punch-lines; Lynch is charming and earnest as Michael gets more and more insistent to know answers to some of the harder questions, such as why God does such horrible things.
The answer to that question makes up the darker thread of the show, with its gradual reveals about God’s mental state and her plans for the universe. The clever, cynical little turn of the resolution is a surprise, but not really a surprise. Because when you look at it, the ways in which God works aren’t really all that mysterious. As it turns out, in fact, God is an awful lot like us.
An Act of God | by David Javerbaum; directed by Brian P. Allen | Good Theater, St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress, Portland | Through February 10 | Thu 7 pm; Fri 7:30 pm; Sat 3 & 7:30 pm; Sun 2 pm; Wed-Thu 7 pm | $25-32 | www.goodtheater.com