In Robert Askins' hilarious, unsettling HAND TO GOD we see libidos run amok in a Texas church basement. A previously prim mother engages in s&m with a baffled, adoring teenager while her sweet, shy son comes under the evil spell of a puppet he has created. A minister's behavior toward a young widow becomes more than pastoral. Is a hand puppet to blame? We know from Tyrone, the puppet's, opening speech that he is an advocate of self-centered, anti-social behavior unfettered by social norms, but he also believes that people tend to blame someone or something else for their anti-social behavior, as in "The devil made me do it." Perhaps Tyrone is merely an excuse for the bad behavior he seems to generate on poor young Jason (the brilliant Steven Boyer) and the people around him. Whatever the case, chaos and some horrifying acts of violence ensue.
I sat through HAND TO GOD in awe of the imagination that could conceive of this dark but entertaining play. The director, who bears the unlikely name of Moritz von Steulpnagel, and his cast have wisely gone all the way with the play's possibilities. Graphic puppet sex that makes the goings on in AVENUE Q seem like "The Muppet Show." The climatic violence is both funny and scary. Beowulf Borritt has created another of his ingenious settings, moving us quickly and effectively around the church. Kudos, too, to the fight director, Robert Westley, and the creator of those puppets, Marie Johanna, Ekhougen. They seem to take on a life of their own.
The cast is terrific, once one accepts that grown ups are playing adolescents. Steven Boyer has the most difficult role as meek Jason and his puppet alter-ego, Tyrone. His performance alone is worth the price of admission. He should be up for a Tony. Geneva Carr transforms before our eyes from sweet sitcom Mom to a fury. Michael Oberholtzer makes the most of his part as her dim, lovelorn teenage prey. The ever-reliable Marc Kudish is perfect as Pastor Greg, who is clearly out of his depth,
I'm not sure everyone in my Wednesday matinee audience knew what to make of HAND TO GOD. It's raunchier, rawer and more cynical than the usual Broadway fare. Perhaps it belongs OFf-Broadway, where it has already had critical and commercial success. I loved it and wish it well.
HAND TO GOD. Booth Theatre. March 18, 2015.