BWW Reviews: Gleefully Subversive HAND TO GOD Now Possesses Broadway
Plays as gleefully subversive and downright audacious as Robert Askins' Hand To God usually stay in their hole-in-the-wall 50-seat theatres until their cult followings are no longer strong enough to keep their seedy venues from being bought out by CVS or Starbucks, so it's a rare and wonderful thing to see director Moritz von Stuelpnagel's aggressively punk production, which started at the 99-seat Ensemble Studio Theatre and was then plunked by MCC into Off-Broadway's Lortel, now gracing Shubert Alley.
Sporting the same cast and design as the play's Off-Broadway run, Hand To God's discomforting message that goodness is not in humankind's organic nature comes off even stronger now and it's exciting to see such a "downtown" show transfer to the Main Stem so smoothly.
The initial premise that a shy, introverted Christian teenager's sock puppet seems to have been possessed by a hard-truth spewing demon might lead you to believe you're in for a night of silly, perhaps a little campy, blasphemous fun.
And sure, when we're first introduced to Tyrone, who lives on young Texan Jason's (Steven Boyer) left forearm, his profane nastiness, contrasting with his goofy appearance, sets us up for an entertaining Exorcist-style satire.
But that's the comforting beginning that lulls you in. Before you know it, it turns out that Askins' drama, as well as Jason's puppet, has some powerful teeth. Though uproariously funny at times, the serious-minded production will have the more squeamish playgoers averting their eyes at the bloody and desperate climax.
Jason's mom, Margery (excellent Geneva Carr), who was recently widowed, leads a small church workshop preparing teens to put together a religiously-themed puppet show. Though she tries to keep a mature and respectable demeanor, her libido has been sent off-kilter by the lustful advances of cocky kid Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) and her supervisor, Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch, balancing sincerity and creepiness).
Though Jason has feelings for his smart, creative friend, Jessica (comically deadpan Sarah Stiles), he doesn't catch her attention until impressing her with a bit of "Who's On First?" But is Jason working alone, or is Tyron more of a partner?
The answer becomes clear when the puppet commits a startling act of violence on Timothy, dragging the shocked Jason behind him. Boyer's performance, which earned him an Obie Award, is not only impressive for his ability to convey the illusion that Tyrone is a separate and uncontrollable entity, but the vocal and physical separation between his two characters is sharp, fast and exacting.
Though the scene where Jessica introduces Tyrone to her lusty female puppet and the two teens have a serious talk about their feeling while their cloth partners engage in multiple and pretty graphic sexual positions is quite memorable, Boyer's performance of Jason's final confrontation with the demon is a chilling, edge of your seat moment, provoking gasps instead of laughs.
In order for Broadway to seriously claim itself to be the heart of American theatre, more plays like this need to be produced there regularly. Hollywood stars and pop music icons may bring in the crowds, but nothing beats good writing, adventurous ideas and major attitude.