April 22, 2015

"Hand to God" is a Devilishly Good Play

Plays like Hand to God rarely make it to Broadway nowadays. For as its cheeky ad campaign says, the play has no movie stars, isn’t a transfer from London or based on a movie. On the other hand, like The Book of Mormon, Hand to God is both outrageously funny and unexpectedly touching. I'm praying it gets the long run it deserves.

It centers around the puppet ministry at an evangelical church. The group is lead by Margery, a fortysomething widow, who’s grieving for a husband who ate himself to death and trying to fend off the well-meaning advances of the church’s minister, Pastor Greg.

The only participants in her puppet group are Jason, Margery’s forlorn teenage son; Timothy, an alpha-male who shows up only because he needs something to do while his mother attends a 12-step program at the church and Jessica, the droll but empathetic girl on whom both boys have a crush.

And then there’s Tyrone. He’s the sock puppet that Jason wears on his hand but that seems to have a mind of its own. And that mind is all id. Tyrone is foul-mouthed, blasphemous and hysterically funny. Really, people, including me, could barely stop laughing at the performance my friend Jessie and I attended.

But the play has its serious side too. Playwright Robert Askins attended conservative Lutheran churches as a boy in Texas and although he’s now the epitome of a Brooklyn hipster (the bald head, the bushy beard, a day job as a bartender—click here to read more about him) he hasn’t forsaken his roots entirely. Hand to God may poke fun at organized religion but it acknowledges the pain that causes people to seek refuge in faith.

Askins occasionally gets a little preachy (I could have done without the spell-it-all-out-for-you final scene). But director Moritz von Stuelpnagel makes the most of the play's zanier moments as Tyrone’s rampages encompass vandalism, cannibalism and even sexual adventurism (this is clearly not a puppet show for kids).

The cast couldn’t be better. Each actor fits into his or her role as though it had been custom-made, moving between the humor and the pathos with ease and equal skill, making sure that even when generating non-stop laughs, they are never condescending towards the characters or their beliefs.

Still, first among equals is Steven Boyer, who plays both Jason and Tyrone. Boyer doesn’t pretend to be a good ventriloquist (you can see his mouth moving when Tyrone speaks) but he's remarkable at channeling two distinctly different characters. 

In one section the meek boy and the ferocious puppet literally wrestle for Jason’s soul, with Boyer switching back and forth between the two in a nanosecond. It’s a knockout performance even in this season filled with standouts (click here to read an interview with the actor).

Friends have expressed surprised when I’ve told them how much I like Hand to God. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that.  

Maybe they feel that I'm not the target audience for the show because so many young people, who presumably missed the show's sold-out off-Broadway runs, are filling the Booth Theatre to see it now. Or maybe it's because some overly prissy folks in my age demo have reportedly been walking out.  

But whatever the reason, they're wrong. I had a helluva good time.

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