God comes to Earth in the guise of Sydney actor Mitchell Butel
Well, this is the reality we live in now: a popular Twitter account has been adapted into a play. Stage shows have been created from existing properties for hundreds of years – from literature to teen movies – so it was only a matter of time. The @shitmydadsays Twitter account was turned into a sitcom in 2010 and books have been built from tweets. It was inevitable. So what have we been #blessed with? @Horse_ebooks the musical? No, no. It’s something a little more divine. In the definitive sense.
The play is An Act of God, an expansion of the irreverent, eye-rolling take on doing unto others as you would have done to you by @TheTweetofGod (AKA David Javerbaum, a 13-time Emmy award winning comedy writer). The concept is simple: God (appearing here in the form of three-time Helpmann winner Mitchell Butel, selected by the Lord for his “offbeat charm”) has had enough of our bullshit and has come down from the heavens to rectify our behaviour with a brand-new set of commandments.
On a SMASH!-worthy stairway to heaven (designed by Charles Davis), lounging on a white couch with fluffy cloud pillows, God is chatty, irritated, cheeky, conflicted, and conspiratorial. He hasn’t made this trip alone – Archangel Gabriel (Laura Murphy, embodying fierce) and Archangel Michael (Alan Flower, embodying sad clown) flank him, playing hype-guy, audience conduit and DJ, depending on the moment.
Javerbaum’s script is punchy, with late-night comedy rhythms and sitcom snap (The Big Bang Theory’s Jim Parsons originated the role of God on Broadway; Will and Grace’s Sean Hayes followed him in the part soon after), and while it is New York and America-centric, he has given leeway to writers to sprinkle in localisms to mitigate this. Co-directors Butel and Richard Carroll (who last showed off his comic chops in a barn-burning take on Calamity Jane) have embraced that gift; audiences and Australians in general are read from Bondi to Summer Hill, and if you’re a regular theatre-goer, you’ll enjoy the in-jokes that tackle everything from Butel’s career to the lighting design trends at Melbourne’s Malthouse.
It takes a few moments to settle into the groove – for Butel to read the audience and calibrate his performance to their collective energy and devotion (or lack thereof) to the Bible, and for God to really get going – but the transition into this world is greatly helped by Butel’s promised charm. His natural wit and showmanship makes him a perfect Vessel for the Lord. When he follows up a new commandment – thou shalt not kill in my name – with a perfectly-judged “It’s not that I don’t appreciate it,” you get a real sense of his skill (once you’re finished laughing).
This isn’t a particularly militant or incisive critique on the entanglement of church and state or the relevance of religion; it isn’t a mean-spirited play, and it can only get away with being cheeky because it’s not hostile or (if you’ll forgive the pun) damning. The jokes are consistent and constant (think the joke-per-minute ratio of The Mindy Project or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) and range from ‘dad joke’ to ‘maybe too far’ in a way that’s likely to please everyone at least some of the time – not a bad outcome for a play about a taboo topic.
But everything feels easier to navigate with Butel at the helm; he’s immediately likeable and audiences will feel safe in his hands, protected from having to think too much about the meaning of life or the evil that men do even as we’re considering discrimination (the postal vote gets a look-in), death, racism and war. In fact if we have to learn a ‘lesson’ at all from the sermon, it’s a pretty easy one to swallow: we’re all awful, that’s how we’re made. So take ownership of it and try to be better. Oh, and stop saying God’s name during sex. He doesn’t want to hear it.