Over the next few weeks, Stephen DeRosa and Jim Walton will transform into angels … in a barn-like building in New Brunswick … where they’ll interact with God … in the form of Kathleen Turner.
That’s what ticket holders will behold when they see “An Act Of God,” the latest production at the temporary home of the George Street Playhouse amid the farm fields of Cook Campus at Rutgers University.
The comedy — written by 13-time Emmy winner David Javerbaum, the former head writer of “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” — stars Oscar and Tony nominee Turner as the Almighty (sort of) and veteran actors DeRosa and Walton as the archangels Michael and Gabriel, respectively.
“God decides that he wants to do a one-man show in America, and the best way to do it is to inhabit the body of a celebrity,” DeRosa explains of the play, which opens Tuesday and runs through Dec. 23. “And in our case, it’s legendary star of stage and screen Kathleen Turner.”
“It’s an hour-and-a-half standup routine delivered by God,” Walton says. “And there are two Ed McMahon characters on either side of God. It’s basically instructing the people of New Brunswick, N.J., that we need some more enlightenment.”
The idea sprung from a Twitter feed Javerbaum runs — @TheTweetOfGod — satirizing humanity under the guise of the Creator. He later turned that into a book, “The Last Testament: A Memoir By God,” and then into the play.
It debuted on Broadway in 2015 with Jim Parsons in the title role, and it was revived on Broadway last year with another sitcom star, Sean Hayes.
Now, it’s come to George Street — or rather, College Farm Road on the outskirts of New Brunswick, where the playhouse has constructed a 200-seat theater in a former agricultural museum as its new home is being built downtown.
“An Act Of God” — the second production in the new space — is directed by David Saint, George Street’s artistic director.
The cozy environment is fitting for the interactive nature of the show. Turner — and her trademark smoky voice — is there to give a lesson directly to the audience.
“God is doing this one-man show to sort of tell America that they’ve been getting a lot of stuff wrong,” DeRosa said. “Their read of the Bible has been mistaken, and he wants to clear up a few things for everybody.”
As Michael, DeRosa often roams through the crowd, taking questions. And as Gabriel, Walton is ready to provide God with Bible verses.
There’s also a new set of Ten Commandments.
And, yes, the play is filled with the kind of barbed humor you’d expect from a former “Daily Show” scribe.
“It’s a very pointed and irreverent script,” Walton says. “But at the same time, it doesn’t make fun of Jews or Catholics. It doesn’t make fun of any religion.”
DeRosa notes that he tells his religious friends that “it’s highly entertaining and only mildly offensive.”
“And while being completely irreverent, it’s surprisingly loving toward our human frailties — which I appreciate, having been raised a Catholic,” he notes.
Both DeRosa and Walton have spent years acting on stage and screen, with multiple stops on Broadway. And they both have performed at George Street before.
Fans of the Atlantic City-set HBO series “Boardwalk Empire” might also recognize DeRosa for his role as the early 20th century stage star Eddie Cantor.
Returning to George Street, he jokes, only adds to his growing New Jersey cred.
“Not to mention, half my relatives live in New Jersey,” DeRosa says. “There’s strong DeRosa blood in New Jersey — literally and metaphorically. But I can’t tell you where the bodies are buried. That’s the property of HBO.”
Fans of musical theater, meanwhile, might be familiar with Walton. He recently did stints on Broadway in the 2011 revival of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company” and this past year’s revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” among others.
But he may be most known for a famous flop. Walton played Franklin Shepard, a lead role in Sondheim’s 1981 show “Merrily We Roll Along,” which ran for just 16 performances before closing but has since developed a cult following.
“That’s the score, I think,” Walton explains. “And the exuberant youthful voices on the recording, which is unlike any other Sondheim show. It’s a very unique show. And it’s almost better just to listen to the recording than to see the show when we did it. It had some problems. But the music, it transcends all that.”
“People always ask, ‘Why did it close? I love the score so much,’” he adds. “I’m like, ‘Well, you had to see it.’”
This time, he and DeRosa, whose résumé also includes musical theater credits, find themselves in a play — and one with only three actors.
Is it more challenging to have so few people on stage?
“The fun thing about this is I don’t feel it’s just the three of us because the audience is such a vital character in the show,” DeRosa says. “And we sort of play with them. But really what this is is a one-person show with two sort of assistants. It’s kind of a different dynamic.”
And there’s a plus, he says.
“If the actual God’s character is not very kind or generous to humanity, Kathleen Turner as a person is,” DeRosa explains. “So that’s been a real blessing.”
As for what they’d say if they ever got a chance to meet the “real” God?
“The first thing I thought I would ask is: How did I do?” DeRosa says. “How did I do while I was on the earth? But the other thing I thought I’d ask is: Can I get you anything?”
Walton cautions that he’s “pretty much agnostic.”
“I don’t sit around and imagine what I’d say to God,” he says. “I guess I’d ask, ‘Where should I put my things?’ … Or ‘Can I talk to Gabriel? Because I played him on stage. I’d really like to meet him.’”
About the author: Brent Johnson is a pop-culture-obsessed writer from East Brunswick, N.J. He's currently a reporter for The Star-Ledger of Newark. Before that, he was a longtime entertainment and music columnist for The Trenton Times. His work has also been published by Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated On Campus and Night & Day Magazine. His favorite musical artists: Elvis Costello, Billy Joel, The Smiths, Roxy Music, Dave Matthews Band, The Beatles, Blur, Squeeze, The Kinks. When he's not writing, Brent is the lead singer in alt-rock band The Clydes
Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.
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