During intermission of the new musical Only Human, which opened this week at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, a random fellow theatergoer approached me and said, “Well, that wasn’t as terrible as I’d expected.” But then we went back for the second act.
The main attraction of this world premiere production is the return to the stage of Oscar-nominated actor and musician Gary Busey — playing God. Stunt casting doesn’t get much better than that. The story begins in the early days of the planet, as God, in a casual suit, is in the process of creating the earth. He’s not quite an all-knowing, all-powerful supreme being but more of a doofy man-child with a support staff: the ambitious, self-obsessed Lou/Lucifer (Mike Squillante), the eager, talented, high-strung Maggie/Mary Magdalene (Kim Steele), and the slacker ne’er-do-well cursing druggie Jay/Jesus (Evan Maltby), the son of God. Lou has a detailed plan to put a new creature on the planet, humans, but everyone disagrees on just how to make them, arguing over the importance of free will, among other things. Lou is ultimately cast out of heaven and sets up shop in hell, leading to a second-act battle for the fate of the world.
First-time book writer Jess Carson and director NJ Agwuna can’t get a handle on the characters or the story, neither of which makes sense, requiring too many leaps of faith. “Who are you?” Lou and Jay ask each other in a duet; don’t ask me, because I have no idea. It’s impossible to figure out the motivations behind much of the action — and don’t even try to relate it to what is in the Bible itself. Time, space, and interpersonal relationships all are mixed up and regurgitated in head-scratching ways. The music and lyrics, by Squillante, lead singer of the band Running Lights, are mundane and clichéd, while Adrià Barbosa’s orchestrations and arrangements are tame and ordinary. Several of the songs in the second act are unnecessary reprises from the first act, adding nothing to the drama except slowing it down. One of the themes of the play is humanity’s “perfect imperfections,” but the musical’s imperfections are far from perfect. Everybody doesn’t always win; someone is going to lose.
A supernatural fight between God and Satan deserves much more excitement. Andrew Moerdyk’s set features a white wall in the back, the top right of which occasionally slides open to reveal God’s office, complete with computer, silly mottoes, and various ephemera. A gold ladder — a stairway to heaven? — allows the others to go up to meet with the supreme being, whom the script refers to as the boss. The ladder is occasionally wheeled around the stage as a prop, just for the heck of it; it’s always there, so why not use it, I guess.
The best part of the show by far are the minor angels played by Ben Bogen and Lili Thomas, who take care of menial tasks but also get to display their singing and dancing chops, making the most of Josue Jasmin’s limited choreography. Bogen brings down the house when he delivers a letter to Lou and really lets loose. But it’s impossible to not focus on the seventy-five-year-old Busey, a Texas native who started his career as a drummer before appearing in such films as Lethal Weapon, Point Break, and The Buddy Holly Story; he also performed in South Pacific and A Midsummer Night’s Dream eons ago. Busey suffered a serious motorcycle accident in 1988 and a drug overdose in 1995, leading to his participation on Celebrity Rehab in 2008. You spend much of the show hoping he doesn’t make any major mistakes, and he doesn’t, although he also doesn’t reveal much depth. He clasps his hands together a lot, repeatedly opens his eyes wide, and makes eye contact with as much of the audience as he can, bringing us into his corner as we root for him. He even sings near the end, but it’s not like the old days. Alas, we are all only human, every one of us, imperfections be damned.