Tonys: 'Hand to God' Cast on the Religion of Broadway

Joan Marcus
Steven Boyer in 'Hand to God'

Nominees Steven Boyer, Geneva Carr and Sarah Stiles discuss the journey from off-Broadway in playwright Robert Askins' dark comedy.

At one point or another, the cast members of Hand to God all thought they were going to get bumped from the show.

For Sarah Stiles, it was at the first table read at MCC Theater, where the Texas-set play about a demonic hand puppet transferred in 2014 after premiering at Ensemble Studio Theater three years earlier. Unlike her co-stars Steven Boyer and Geneva Carr, Stiles hadn't been part of the earlier production, and she was intimidated.

"These two were just giving what felt like fully realized performances," Stiles says. “I didn't even have a Southern accent! I remember going home and sobbing, 'I'm going to be fired. I don't know what I'm doing.' "

However, Carr, who plays a conflicted church mom running a puppet ministry, felt the same way. "I thought, Sarah's so amazing. They are going to replace me," she says. "I just kept thinking, am I going to go see this show when they recast me? Am I going to have the courage to go?"

And the transfer to Broadway posed the biggest recasting threat for Boyer, who plays distraught teenager Jason, possessed by a demonic sock puppet named Tyrone.

"When I heard the show was moving I was like, well, I know they're going to recast Tyrone," Boyer jokes. "I hope that I get to go, too."

Sitting in the green room at the Booth Theatre, where the play is currently running, the three laugh about it now that they’re all first-time Tony Award nominees for the show, which is directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. While they won’t admit to being entirely confident — "In the back of my mind, I still realize how many weeks I have left on my unemployment claim," Boyer confesses — they’re not as worried about losing their jobs anymore.

Playwright Robert Askins wrote the roles of Jason and his widowed mother, Marjorie, for Boyer and Carr while they were all at EST. Askins was part of the company’s Youngblood program for playwrights under 30. Religion is a recurring theme in his work. (His play Permission, which is currently running at MCC starring Elizabeth Reaser and Justin Bartha, is about Christian Domestic Discipline.) Stiles says one of her favorite questions for the cast is about their religious backgrounds, since they vary so much.

"I grew up in a hippie, New Age-y, crunchy-granola, woodland fairy kind of house," says Stiles.

"She talks to the chipmunks," interjects Boyer. "Tell me the secrets of the woods!"

"We're making fun of it, but it was real life for me," says Stiles. "And then I just started going to a church here in the city, Marble Collegiate. I try to go every Sunday. I love it. I don't know anything about religion. Everything I learned about religion was from Jesus Christ Superstar."

Boyer agrees, adding that, as a child, he only went to church on Easter and Christmas Eve because that’s the "minimum requirement to stay out of hell." However, he converted to Judaism last year, when he got married. "I'm loving it," he says. "My rabbi came to the show and totally dug it."

Growing up, Carr’s father was a deacon in the Catholic church and her mother was a priest’s secretary, but now she considers herself an atheist. "When I get to rip that Bible and get angry [in the play], there are moments when I want to punch my Daddy in the face!" Carr says. "But we’re not making fun of people. Having been raised in the South, a lot of my friends are Bible Belt Christians. They've all come to see the show, and for them it's a show about people connecting. It does happen in the church. It's the context, but we're not making fun of it."

Since the play is a comedy, many might assume it's an outlandish depiction of what life is like in the South. But when asked if they think the play is an exaggerated portrait of Southern life, the cast immediately reacts. "Do you want me to call my Aunt Susan?" Carr asks, slipping into a thick Southern accent.

"We’re all pulling back!" Boyer says. "It’s pretty subtle."

While Carr, like Askins, had actually been part of a puppet ministry, Stiles had experience in the medium from her stint in Avenue Q on Broadway. She can now count two shows in her bio in which she had to perform "puppet sex."

"In Avenue Q you're basically one unit moving simultaneously," Stiles explains. "So in rehearsals, Moritz would be like, 'Avenue Q! Stop it! Stop it!' And I had to learn how to separate the two of them, because I was walking like the puppet and turning like the puppet. It was so ingrained in me the other way that I had to unlearn it."

And while puppetry was a fairly new experience for Boyer — he had done some work with the form in Jolly Ship the Whiz-Bang off-Broadway in 2008 — he now can’t forget about his feisty friend Tyrone even when he leaves the show, as his left hand is bandaged and bruised. One mishap took place during the final scene, and for those who have seen the play, let’s just say he really hit his target.

"There's a lot you can't see because the bruises have faded," Boyer says of his injuries.

"When people tell me it’s their second time seeing the show, I know what they're going to say next because they always say the same things," he continues. "They say, ‘This time, I watched your face when Tyrone was talking.’ I take it as a compliment that the first time they're caught up in Tyrone as a character. But the second time they're trying to catch the trick."