As God in 'An Act of God,' Sean Hayes has his OMG moment

In the Book of Genesis, God proclaimed, "Let there be light," and there was light. In the theater, there are stage hands to do that job, and on a recent morning, a crew had lighted the Ahmanson to a warm glow for the newest deity in residence.

Standing on the mostly bare stage, actor Sean Hayes took a moment to absorb the towering grandeur of his new dominion. And Sean saw that it was good.

It was the actor's first time performing at the Ahmanson, where he has the title role in the comedic play "An Act of God." To be more precise, he will play himself, possessed by the Almighty, who has come to Los Angeles and inhabited the body of a celebrity to deliver a revised set of the Ten Commandments.

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If the God of the Old Testament was vengeful, Hayes is a humorous deity given to horsing around and making wacky pronouncements — not unlike the flamboyant Jack McFarland, whom he played on NBC's sitcom "Will & Grace."

"Can we bring the seats all the way to the stage so people can put their drinks and hot dogs here?" he randomly asked. A theater manager said he would see what could do about that.

Later, alongside the play's author, David Javerbaum, the actor described the heavenly character he incarnates as "very self-righteous, egotistical, sarcastic, sardonic." But he also "becomes, through the course of the play, self-aware. Which I love. So there is actually a narrative to the play."

"An Act of God," directed by Joe Mantello, opened on Broadway in May with Jim Parsons of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory" in the lead role. Because of his shooting schedule, Parsons couldn't reprise the role in L.A., where opening night is scheduled for Feb. 10. So producers tapped Hayes, who hadn't seen the New York production but loved the script.

"I went through five or six pages and said this is some of the best writing I've read in my life. And oddly, it's in my voice. It was bizarre," he said.

In the following weeks, Javerbaum tailored his play to fit both Hayes and L.A., with new topical references and jokes.

The 90-minute comedy is loosely based on Javerbaum's 2011 book, "The Last Testament: A Memoir by God," as well as the parody Twitter account @TheTweetofGod, in which he tweets in the voice of the Almighty.

"My editor said that you should start a Twitter account to help publicize the book," Javerbaum recalled. "That was back when people thought that Twitter could do anything to help the Godforsaken publishing industry. I did it, and I found that I enjoyed it."

A former writer for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" and "Late Show With David Letterman," Javerbaum said he was approached by Broadway producer Jeffrey Finn to turn the material into a stage play.

Hayes delivers God's new commandments with the help of two winged angels as well as some willing audience participants. For the TV veteran, it meant having to memorize 45 pages of text, most of which is monologue.

"I go to a specific spot in my house, every time. It took about five hours to learn each page," he said. "You just do it. It's like going to the gym. It's the same muscle. You power through it word by word, line by line.

"I actually thought it was easier to memorize this than most scenic work that you do for TV or film. … When you don't have an interruption, there's a flow, so it's easier to memorize. Monologues are easier to memorize than dialogue."

Hayes said he isn't religious but was raised a Catholic and as a young student growing up in suburban Chicago had to attend Bible classes on Wednesday nights.

"I was buttoned up as a kid," he said. "I did what I was told and never broke the rules."

By high school, his clownish side had emerged, and he was performing pratfalls in the school hallways.

"Half the people would look at me like I was an idiot. And maybe a quarter of the people thought it was funny. So I would hang out with those people," he said.

Hayes, on Broadway in 2010 in the musical comedy "Promises, Promises," said he generally doesn't get offered dramatic roles but doesn't mind.

"The smartest thing that an actor can do is embrace the thing that made them famous as opposed to run away from it or deny that it happened," he said. "That does a disservice to most actors. To me, it looks like you're ungrateful."

Javerbaum quipped: "And yet your sex video you deny."

The actor joked right back: "I've turned a corner. I embrace it. And not only do I embrace it, I promote it."

Javerbaum is Jewish but said he isn't religious. ("I've driven by churches. I haven't gone in," he said.) He read the Old Testament, the four Gospels and the Koran in preparation for the play.

He described "An Act of God" as a "comedic conception of the Old Testament God. … Daddy is pretty nuts. He's pretty vengeful."

Javerbaum studied musical theater at New York University and worked a stint for the Onion satirical newspaper. One of his favorite headlines: "World's largest metaphor struck by iceberg."

He has two musicals in the hopper, including one based on the life of former Interior Secretary James G. Watt, who resigned in 1983 after he characterized a coal advisory commission as "a black ... a woman, two Jews and a cripple."

At one point in the interview, Hayes and Javerbaum wondered aloud what they should do for Oscars night on Feb. 28, which will be a two-performance day.

"Is anyone going to go?" Hayes asked.

"We should do something special," Javerbaum said.

After bouncing around a few ideas, they landed on a conceit that they would write into the play. (Javerbaum asked that it not be revealed.)

The duo are also working on a few script changes for when the play travels to San Francisco for a three-week run at the SHN Golden Gate Theatre Theatre, starting late March.

In their time working together, they appeared to have developed an easy, jokey rapport. Hayes described Javerbaum as an "incredibly kind human being, as genuine and salt-of-the-earth as they get."

The actor added: "And I'm just kidding."

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 31, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Sean Hayes, from on high - The former `Will & Grace' star is possessed by a deity with a light touch in `Act of God' at the Ahmanson." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe