'Hand to God': Theater Review

Hand to God Production Still - H 2015
Joan Marcus

Hand to God Production Still - H 2015

Blasphemy on Broadway? Amen to that.

A foul-mouthed Satanic sock puppet unleashes hell in a Texas church basement in Robert Askins' gleefully heathen comedy about the divided self.

Perhaps the most subversive creations of the long-running Broadway hit Avenue Q were the Bad Idea Bears, two cute, pastel-colored fluffy toys whose mission was to enable questionable behavior. Whether or not homage is intended, playwright Robert Askins has taken that concept several steps further with his wicked comedy Hand to God, about a confused Christian teenager possessed by a demonic sock puppet named Tyrone. A scabrously funny scenario that steadily darkens into suspense and Grand Guignol horror, this fiery clash of the id, ego and superego is also an audacious commentary on the uses of faith, both to comfort and control us.

Bold new American plays by unestablished dramatists too seldom make it to Broadway, so this commercially risky endeavor — a challenge approached head-on by producers in their amusing marketing campaign ­— is to be applauded. The show also brings a welcome breath of fresh air via a director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, new to the commercial theater mainstream, and a talented ensemble of five actors, only one of whom, Marc Kudisch, is a Broadway regular. The sharp production has evolved over two hit off-Broadway incarnations, increasing in size with each move, and it now sits quite snugly in the still-intimate confines of the Booth Theatre.

Standing in for Divinity, Beowulf Boritt's clever set is almost a character in itself, an aggressively cheery basement rec room of a Lutheran church in Cypress, Texas, its powder-blue cinder-block walls festooned with colorful "God Loves You" art. But before the reluctant participants in a youth puppetry ministry — the Christketeers, Pastor Greg (Kudisch) proudly calls them — assemble, the rogue Tyrone sets us straight on a few things. Those include the "golden age," before such tedious concepts as right and wrong or group mentality were invented, along with the devil, that all-purpose scapegoat for wrongdoing.

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Tyrone looks innocuous enough. He's a double-rod sock puppet with a gray wool body in an argyle sweater, and mock-innocent button eyes beneath a shock of flame-red hair to match the tongue in his cavernous black felt mouth. But when gravel-voiced insinuations start pouring forth from that mouth, it's clear that devilish thoughts are his specialty. That comes as a shock to Jason (Steven Boyer), the shy 15-year-old to whose hand Tyrone is attached. At first, neither droll, nerdy Jessica (Sarah Stiles) nor black-clad, disruptive badass Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) seem to notice. Even less aware of what's going on is Jason's recently widowed mother Margery (Geneva Carr), clinging desperately to whatever sense of purpose she can find in running the puppetry workshop. When Jason confesses, "I think it's doing bad things to me," she refuses to listen, insisting that she needs him to be her rock.

But Tyrone will not be denied. While Jason impresses Jessica by performing the classic Abbott and Costello "Who's on First?" routine with the puppet, his timid flirtation proves too slow for Tyrone, who blurts out a backhanded compliment about Jessica's hotness. When a panicked Jason later attempts to destroy Tyrone, the puppet returns to his bed that night, with a botched repair job, a few new teeth and a more violently bullying attitude.

Meanwhile, Margery, who has no puppet alter ego to exercise her turbulent subconscious, cringes through the earnest attempts of Pastor Greg at sensitive courtship. Almost as an involuntary reflex, she responds to the amorous advances of Timothy with some kinky role play. (Casting actors who are clearly no longer in their teens as the youth characters helps downplay the creepiness.) That doesn't sit well with all-knowing Tyrone, who also blames Margery for the death of Jason's depressed dad. The puppet takes charge, and it's out for blood.

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Director von Stuelpnagel and his terrific cast tackle this darkly funny material with a shrewd balance of heightened reality, warped sitcom and underlying pathos, landing all the jokes while never denying the genuine sorrow and anger driving both Jason and Margery to such erratic behavior. That said, the play delivers a steady stream of laughs, and one truly uproarious sight gag full of details that keep on giving, after Tyrone's desecrating decorator hand has gone to town on the rec room. Let's just say you'll never look at a Hello Kitty doll the same way again. Not to mention poor Barbie.

Askins handles the escalation of unsettling hysteria with assurance, introducing an inspired twist when unexpectedly resourceful Jessica takes the situation in hand, so to speak. While it’s by no means derivative, the puppet premise has a kinship to Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, and some overlap with films from Ted to The Beaver, while the play throws in winking horror movie references, from lesser entries like Magic and Idle Hands to genre classics like Evil Dead II and The Exorcist. (Though teasing us with the prospect of Pastor Greg getting all Max von Sydow on Jason's ass and then not following through is just cruel.) There's also what seems an explicit nod to Avenue Q, with puppet coitus that makes Lucy T. Slut's exploits seem G-rated.

But as crazy or gory or raunchy or profane as the play gets — and it's not lacking in any of those qualities — Hand to God is not merely a wacky sacrilegious comedy. Askins is clearly interested in exploring the psychology of grief, repression of human nature and adolescent unease on his own unconventional terms, while also making what for many will be quite provocative statements about the moral ambiguities of Christianity.

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The five actors couldn't be better. Oberholtzer's Timothy is the archetypal high school bad boy — dumb and horny but maybe deep down just as desperate for love as Jason. Stiles is dryly hilarious but with moments of disarming sweetness and a surprising ballsy streak. Kudisch makes Pastor Greg stolid, well meaning and dull, but neither the actor nor the playwright condescends to the character by making him ridiculous. The wonderful Carr plays a character on the dangerous edge of desperation throughout, but she keeps Margery sympathetic, giving her fragility a soft sexiness that makes her believable as an object of desire to both the lonely pastor and the teenage delinquent.

But the real virtuoso performance is Boyer's. Whether trembling with fear as the deeply unhappy, reedy-voiced Jason or with power-crazed tyranny, wild irreverence and thundering rage as Tyrone, he creates two entirely distinct characters that give the illusion of existing independently of one another. Together, they somehow add up to one messed-up but affectingly real kid. Forgive the pun, but Boyer deserves a big hand.

Cast: Steven Boyer, Geneva Carr, Michael Oberholtzer, Sarah Stiles, Marc Kudisch

Director: Moritz von Stuelpnagel

Playwright: Robert Askins

Set designer: Beowulf Boritt

Costume designer: Sydney Maresca

Lighting designer: Jason Lyons

Sound designer: Jill BC Du Boff

Puppet designer: Marte Johanne Ekhougen

Fight director: Robert Westley

Presented by Kevin McCollum, Broadway Global Ventures, CMC, Morris Berchard, Mariano V. Tolentino Jr., Stephanie Kramer, LAMS Productions, DeSimone/Winkler, Joan Raffe & Jhett Tolentino, Timothy Laczynski, Lily Fan, Ayal Miodovnik, JAM Theatricals, Ensemble Studio Theatre, MCC Theater