BWW Review: HAND TO GOD at City Theatre is Wickedly Funny and Surprisingly Human
There is something really challenging about seeing mediocre or sub-par theatre, both as an audience member and as a reviewer. It's uncomfortable to sit in a theatre and watch performances that aren't engaging or see stories unfold that are filled with clunky and awkward dialogue and one-dimensional characters. Few things are more valuable than time, so seeing dissatisfying theatre often leaves audience members wondering what other activities they could've been doing to make better use of theirs.
As a reviewer, it's often even more difficult to see bad theatre. Nobody enjoys revisiting and writing about an experience that wasn't positive. If a show leaves a bad taste in a person's mouth, they just won't want to sit down and write about it. Nobody wants to write harmful or negative comments that can impact performers attitudes or perceptions, but reviewers also want to be honest for audiences and informative to local theatre-enthusiasts. And if a show is just fine, just middle-of-the-line, just okay, its sometimes even harder. When nothing particularly memorable occurs in a two-hour production, there isn't much for a reviewer to talk about.
Thankfully, HAND TO GOD at City Theatre is a joy to revisit and incredibly easy to talk about because, to be quite frank, it was an absolutely delightful theatrical experience. It's no surprise to me, at least, after seeing this production, that HAND TO GOD is now the most produced play in the 2016-2017 theatrical season. Much of the credit for that belongs to playwright Robert Askins, who has managed to write one of the most wickedly funny, disturbingly dark, and audaciously bold plays that I have ever seen. Dialogue flutters and bounces between characters in a seamless, believable, and shockingly human (considering how unbelievable the entire circumstances of the play are) fashion. When the writing and dialogue in a play are strong, it makes everybody's job in the production so much easier.
Equally as strong as the writing are all of the performances, and that starts with actor Nick LaMedica, who portrays both Jason and the demonic puppet on his arm, Tyrone. Marymount Manhattan College must be doing something right as far as training goes, because this alumnus is so incredibly seasoned that its unreal. As Jason, LaMedica is very nuanced. He's vulnerable and honest with his crush Jessica while still managing to be sincere with his anger and frustration towards his mother and his environment. There are so many moments when LaMedica is alone onstage, acting with himself as two characters and it's very impressive. Tyrone is a very different character from Jason, so there are moments where LaMedica is scared and nervous, crying even, as Jason, but then having to switch to acting as his puppet, Tyrone, and yelling at Jason with fiery passion.
LaMedica may be stronger when he's portraying Tyrone, if that's even possible. He's so deliciously evil that it's impossible to not be engaged with what he's doing. Whether it's conning innocent and easily-manipulated Jason into doing bad things, or coaxing Jason into confessing his feelings for his crush, or picking fights with Jason's bully, Timmy, he's just so passionate about being evil that it's pure fun for the audience. Eventually, things do get to a very deep and dark place and it goes from being funny to very serious, but it works because Jason and Tyrone are just so interesting to watch. LaMedica's puppetry skills and voice work for Tyrone also have to be commended.
As Margery, Jason's equally damaged mother (who recently became a widow), Lisa Velten Smith is just tremendous. Margery may lead a simple puppet class for teens in the basement of a church, but she's anything but normal. She comes off like Connie Britton's character Tami Taylor from Friday Night Lights... Except for the fact that she's slightly insane. Smith has superb stage presence and comedic timing. Within the initial couple of minutes of her first scene, she already had me and the rest of the audience in stitches. She was hilarious all through the show, to put it plainly. And then Act II starts (the darker and more serious act of the two) and Smith displays less comedic prowess and more captivating dramatic ability. The situation with her recently deceased husband and the dynamic between her and her son are absolutely heartbreaking, and Smith holds no punches.
As Timmy, Michael Greer makes for a wonderful bully and foil to Jason. When I first saw him onstage with the rest of the kids in the show, I was worried that he was too old looking and I was never going to believe him as a teenager in that world. Thankfully, by the end of his first scene with the group (especially after his line, "What? I'm the one that's being forced to look at a boner. I'm the victim here.") I was completely sold on him. The relationship that he and Margery developed was hilariously creepy and the way he bounded about the room with child-like energy and glee as he tormented Jason was completely amusing to watch. The fight chorography that he shared with Smith was also very sharp. Kudos to fight choreographer Diego Villada.
Initially, I thought that Tim McGeever as Pastor Greg was going to have to endure playing a rather thankless role, but I was pleasantly surprised that that wasn't the case. At first, he comes off as rather pushy, albeit kind and concerned, and even slightly irritating. He reminded me of Herbert Garrison from South Park all through the first act. McGeever comes off as almost innocent and clueless about the horrible things going on around him, and when he really discovers how dark and terrible everything actually is during Act II, the dramatic shift that he goes through was captivating and gave the audience really nice payoff for his character.
Maggie Carr was sweet and charming as Jessica, which is exactly what her character demanded. Her scenes with Jason were some of the most natural and simple moments in the show and she exuded comfort and simplicity every time she came onto the stage. She was just a very watchable presence, and I found myself always excited when I saw her come onstage. She was a nice juxtaposition from the rest of the cast, because she was so grounded and easy-going as opposed to crazy and high-strung. I enjoyed Carr very much when I saw her in the REP's production of Country House, but I enjoyed her much more in this production.
Tracy Brigden did a solid job directing an immaculate production. She had supremely talented performers to work with, and it showed. There were a lot of moving parts throughout the show, especially with different blood and injury affects, fighting, and sex, yet every action from every actor seemed motivated and was clearly made understood why it was happening through the entire night. One thing that did slightly irk me was that there was a scene early on in the show (the scene in the car) that was a strong precursor to what was soon to come in the second act between Jason and Margery that seemed as if they should've been handled with less levity and humor but it wasn't. I don't know if the audience just wasn't aware of how serious everything they were watching was and they just kept laughing, or if it was deliberately made to be more funny than it should've been, but I did take note of it.
The production team also did an impeccable job. Scenic designer Tony Ferrieri made incredible use of his space and managed to make my jaw drop when his set spun around to reveal different locations (church office, bedroom, etc). Even simple scene shifts like the shift to the playground outside or the car were beautifully designed and flowed perfectly from one scene to the next. The lighting design by Andrew David Ostrowski was magnificent and served its purpose in setting appropriate moods throughout the night as well. The costumes were all appropriate and designed nicely by Tracy Christiansen and the sound that was utilized throughout the production (especially some of the small background ambient noise) was effectively designed by Elizabeth Atkinson.
HAND TO GOD was an incredible experience. I had heard that it was funny, but I had no idea how funny. And as funny as it was, I was most shocked and delighted to find how much heart and honesty it possessed. It's not common that audiences can see a show starring a demonic puppet that's so weirdly absurd, yet so human. And, though it's early in the 2016-2017 theatrical season, I doubt I'll see anything onstage this year that's nearly as... interesting, to put it lightly without spoilers... as the scene between Jason and Jessica and their puppets near the ending of Act II. It is a scene I that I don't think I'll ever forget, as long as I live. It was that great.
Run, do not walk to see HAND TO GOD at City Theatre. A year from now, it will be remembered as one of the finest theatrical productions of the year.