by Kevin Shaw
When I was still in college back in the late 1980’s, I somehow found myself not only working as a disc jockey at the local radio station in Tuscaloosa, AL (Roll Tide!), but eventually was promoted to having my own morning show as I replaced a nationally known jock (Steve Shannon). Unfortunately, I was too young (and stupid) to realize what an honor it was to get the gig at such a young age until I saw the devastation on the dj’s face who had been working the afternoon shift at the same station for over 10 years as he was passed over for the job (he would have easily killed about twenty people to get it). Even more foolishly, I quit the job in less than a year. For one, I hated getting up at an ungodly hour every morning to go to work. But, even worse, I hated having to be entertaining—in short, funny in a room all by myself. It was a ridiculous premise to me. I’m supposed to sit alone in a room the size of a phone booth at 6 a.m. and say silly things in the hopes that an audience (that I’ll never see or hear) will laugh? How do I know if people are getting the jokes? How do I know if they are loving or hating me? Telling jokes isn’t much fun if you never hear anyone laugh.
Not too long ago, The Daily Show writer David Javerbaum gained a cult-like following on Twitter with his creation of “Tweets From God”—observations and musings via the voice of God. A clever tweet went out and if someone found it amusing, they’d retweet it, etc. and before you knew it @TheTweetOfGod had almost 2 million followers. Javerbaum proved to the “Twitter World” that individuals enjoyed receiving a sentence or two tweet for a dose of solitary bemusement every few days. After a while, those tweets began to add up and then the idea came to put them all in a book. Again, solitary entertainment that probably produced an occasional guffaw, peppered with some amusing smiles—no harm, no foul. Unwilling to leave well enough alone though, producers decided to see if it would work to put a “star” onstage pretending to be miraculously embodied by God as a vehicle to share God’s thoughts with a high-paying Broadway audience. Sean Hayes and Jim Parsons took turns starring in the show. But let’s be exact—Broadway producers didn’t put Sean Hayes onstage to be “embodied” by God. They put Sean Hayes acting as Jack McFarland pretending to be embodied by God. Just like they put Jim Parsons acting like Sheldon Cooper being embodied by God. For that, people would pay a lot of money to see. Wondering if there’s a reason no one else (maybe less famous and not already known for portraying an iconic character on television) played the role on Broadway? Don’t. There’s a reason. It’s just not funny watching your Average Job (I mean Joe) trying to pull this off. Like Job, there will be pain.
You have to give credit to Theatre Memphis for trying though. They tapped one of the best directors (Cecelia Wingate) and most fearless actors (Kevar Maffitt) in Memphis to give it a go, but rather than witnessing a night of miracles, it quickly became a night of Armageddon-a righteous battle that simply could not be won. In an interview with WKNO, Wingate stated that rather than treating this piece like a play, she wanted Maffitt to treat it like a conversation. Producing the show in Theatre Memphis’ Next Stage does offer the opportunity for an intimate experience, but “conversations” require at least two people to participate. Instead, Maffitt impressively conducted a 90 minute monologue, not a conversation (and you have to ask yourself when’s the last time you enjoyed trying to converse with someone only to have them talk for 90 minutes without interruption). In the “play,” God has decided to come to Memphis, inhabit the body of Mr. Maffitt and provide an “update” to his Ten Commandments. A slightly amusing premise, I suppose, but hardly worth putting together 90 minutes (no intermission) of tweets and calling it a “play.” Again, I’m a huge admirer of Kevar Maffitt. He was incredible as Lord Farquaad in Shrek, but physicality is his strength as a performer, not sitting on a couch just talking. Just as in the Broadway production, the decision was made to keep Maffitt sitting on a couch almost the entire time–a task that left Maffitt literally fit to be tied. He accentuated and gesticulated on almost every word and alternated crossing one leg under the other in perhaps a subconscious attempt to “punch up” the “conversation.” What’s the cliché? Cry on stage for yourself and the audience won’t cry with you. Similarly, laugh onstage at yourself and you’ll laugh alone (Pretending to be God while taking an audience member’s cell phone and telling the caller on the other end that you are banging his wife, then hanging up on them and laughing maniacally is about as unfunny as it sounds. Saying that you allowed the Holocaust to happen so that the musical Cabaret could be created-also not so funny.). Look, I get the premise–irreverent humor can be loads of fun (The Book of Mormon), but witty tweets don’t make for a night of theatre. They just don’t.
At no fault of Theatre Memphis, Wingate or Maffitt, An Act of God just doesn’t work at a community theatre level with a very gifted, local actor. Perhaps, it does work better on Broadway with a big name celebrity channeling their best known television character channeling God, but not here. The marketing department for Theatre Memphis’ website may want to rethink labeling this show a “God-Forsaken Comedy,” but, then again, maybe not.