When Ted Pappas started thinking about who would make a good God, he took off for New York City and waited at the stage door of “Forbidden Broadway” to talk to a Jewish Point Park grad who had been delighting audiences with his impersonations of such show biz legends as Mandy Patinkin, Woody Allen and Harvey Fierstein.
Marcus Stevens, with his Jewish comic sensibilities and his admitted love of shtick, was Pappas’ first choice to play the title larger-than-life character in “Act of God,” which will be opening at the Pittsburgh Public Theater June 1 and running through July 2.
“My prayers were answered when Marcus said ‘yes’ to the project,” said Pappas, producing artistic director of the PPT and director of the upcoming run of “Act of God.” “I’ve seen him perform, I’ve worked with him before on everything from Shakespeare to musical comedy. I took a special trip to New York when he was starring in ‘Forbidden Broadway’ to see the tremendous range and warmth he has as a comedian. And when I decided to do the play, I simply called him and said, ‘Should we talk about this?’”
“Act of God” was written by David Javerbaum, who has won 13 Emmy Awards, 11 for his writing on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.” The play, which evolved from Javerbaum’s popular Twitter account @TheTweetOfGod, is essentially a one-being show — save for two archangels, Gabriel and Michael.
The show had two limited runs on Broadway, the first with Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”), then Sean Hayes (“Will & Grace”) playing the Almighty. Both runs completely sold out, with Pappas only getting the chance to see Parson’s turn because he was a Tony voter.
“It’s one of the funniest plays around, and it’s very rarely done,” Pappas said. “It hasn’t been in full release yet; there have been very few productions of it. So, it’s a premiere here, and I don’t know anyone who’s seen it here except me.”
The play is premised on God taking the form of actor Stevens to personally deliver a new set of commandments directly to the audience. Much of it seems off-the-cuff, but that is due to Javerbaum’s expertise as a comedy writer, according to Pappas.
“Javerbaum is such a skilled writer,” he said. “So, there’s the feeling that God plans for his show, but as he gets inspired by the audience, he comes up with stories, like, you know, ‘That reminds me of the time I invented light, or the time I invented death.’”
The play covers both the Old Testament and New, Pappas said, but its tone “is sort of an homage to high class Jewish comedian entertainers. The rhythm of the writing is vintage, you know, Alan King — stories that relate to the people in the audience in a very personal way, with surprising punch lines. And that’s Javerbaum’s pedigree. He has modernized that genre for television audiences, but it’s as funny as it was in the 1950s. You can sort of picture this God appearing as a guest on the Ed Sullivan show.”
For Stevens, who grew up outside of Philadelphia but lived and performed in Pittsburgh for six years following his graduation from Point Park, the chance to play God under the direction of Pappas is “super exciting.”
“I read the script and I felt so overwhelmed that Ted trusted me to do it because it’s such a large role,” Stevens said.
As God, Stevens riffs on a broad variety of topics as he doles out 10 new commandments for a contemporary human race.
“The ideas range from … him talking about separation of church and state to how he feels about celebrities thanking him in their acceptance speeches at the Oscars — all these things that are modern and that are not in the Bible,” Stevens said.
The show has a “surprising quality,” Stevens continued, “because he likes to riff. It’s really fun, because you just don’t know what you’re going to get.”
Stevens has discovered a certain Borscht Belt quality to Javerbaum’s God, which he is happy to amplify.
“Ted has pushed me many times to go into a direction of more Jewish comedian, and I said, ‘Oh, is that OK if I do that?’ And he said, ‘Marcus, that’s where you live; I’m playing to your strengths. You’re not Jim Parsons.’ I’m sure Jim Parsons and Sean Hayes were hilarious in a very different way than I’m going to be funny. I think my take on the show is not decidedly Jewish, but it’s just in my DNA as a performer.”
About three quarters of the play is about stories from the Torah, Stevens said, adding that there is a section at the end where he talks about Jesus, “but it’s from a parent’s standpoint, so it also feels very Jewish to me.”
In addition to acting, Stevens has had much success as a playwright. The first musical he wrote, “Red,” told the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg through the eyes of the controversial Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce. It was produced at the Pittsburgh Playhouse in 2004 and was awarded the 2005 Richard Rodgers Award for the development of new musicals by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Following the run of “Act of God,” Stevens has another big project awaiting him: he is about to become a first-time dad and is anticipating spending the rest of his summer at his home in New York with his wife and his new baby.
In the meantime, he’s happy to be in Pittsburgh and is “having a blast,” he said. “I get to be God.”
The show contains adult language and is recommended for audiences 17 and over.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.