Hand to God – a dark, irreverent and smart comedy by the young, previously unknown playwright Peter Askins (who’s apparently been making his living as a bartender) – is one hell of a great success story, having graduated step by step from a low-budget Off-Broadway production at Ensemble Studio Theater, to a higher-budget Off-Broadway production at MCC Theater, to finally Broadway itself.
It is the kind of raw and raunchy play you don’t typically see on Broadway, but once there ends up making Broadway a more exciting, youth-friendly environment. Considering how so many plays this season have come from the Brits and are about the Brits (The Audience, Wolf Hall, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the Skylight revival), it feels good to have Hand to God playing right beside them.
Hand to God brings to mind Avenue Q, which also involved foul-mouthed puppets and was shepherded to commercial success by producer Kevin McCollum. Yet in spite of how silly it gets, Hand to God is also a seriously disturbing portrait of an emotionally scarred mother and son who have spent so long suppressing their rage that it comes out in unpredictable and inappropriate ways.
Jason (Steven Boyer), a sad and shy high school teen in Texas whose father recently died, has been enlisted by Margery (Geneva Carr), his enterprising mother, to take part in her fledgling church basement puppet theater – the Christian Puppet Ministry – along with a few other classmates including cool kid Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) and girl next door Jessica (Sarah Stiles).
While building their hand puppets out of cotton and cloth, Jason unveils Tyrone, who quickly takes on a life of his own and turns into Jason’s cheeky alter ego. After Jason hears that Timmy had sex with his mother, Tyrone bites off a chunk of Timothy’s ear, leading the family-friendly pastor (Marc Kudisch) to conclude that Jason has become possessed by the devil. By act two, Tyrone has turned the child-friendly church basement into a sort of dark lair.
In a scene not likely to be forgotten anytime soon, Tyrone has long, graphic sex with a female puppet being operated by Jessica, who tries to help Jason by playing along. There’s also the ultra-violent manner in which Jason tries to dispose of Tyrone, which is definitely not for the squeamish. I’ll give you a hint: It involves a hammer and both hands.
Boyer is able to separate Jason from Tyrone so completely that he is essentially giving two standout performances at once. It’s like watching Hyde run amok while Jekyll looks on helplessly. The sudden intensity in which Boyer leaps into the guise of Tyrone is actually quite chilling. What if this young boy had chosen to act out his rage in even more violent ways?
Carr highlights the tense, hidden anger building up in Margery, which leads the character into making rash and extremely inappropriate decisions. Stiles, a veteran of Avenue Q, is perfectly believable as a teenage girl in spite of being quite older herself. Kudisch, who by all rights should be playing Oscar Jaffe in the current Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century, given his robust singing voice, brings a sincerity and innocence as the pastor that serves as a counterweight to the insane antics going on around him.
Upon leaving the theater, I was surprised to find that no hand puppets were being sold as souvenirs. Hell, I would have bought one.