Review Roundup: HAND TO GOD Opens on Broadway - All the Reviews!
The new American play Hand to God opens on Broadway tonight, April 7, 2015 at the Booth Theatre (222 West 45th Street), marking the Broadway debuts of playwright Robert Askins and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel.
The hilarious and provocative Hand to God centers on shy, inquisitive student Jason, who finds an outlet for his burgeoning creativity at the Christian Puppet Ministry in the devoutly religious, relatively quiet small town of Cypress, Texas. Jason's complicated relationships with the town pastor, the school bully, the girl next door and-most especially-his mother are thrown into further upheaval when Jason's hand puppet Tyrone -- once soft-spoken -- takes on a shocking and dangerously irreverent personality all its own. As Tyrone's influence over Jason steadily grows, Hand to God explores the startlingly fragile nature of faith, morality, and the ties that bind us.
Hand to God features Steven Boyer as Jason/Tyrone; Geneva Carr, in her Broadway debut, as Margery; Tony Award nominee Marc Kudisch as Pastor Greg; Sarah Stiles as Jessica; and Michael Oberholtzer, in his Broadway debut, as Timothy. Boyer reprises the role for which he has been honored with an Obie Award, the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play, the Actors' Equity Association Clarence Derwent Award for Most Promising Newcomer, and a citation from the Drama League for Distinguished Performance, among other awards.
Let's see what the critics had to say...
Michael Dale, BroadwayWorld: ...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...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...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.
Alexis Soloski, The Guardian: It's not a lot more irreverent than The Book of Mormon, but it is a lot dirtier and there are no dance numbers. Askins's script, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, often betrays an adolescent desire to shock and scandalise. Monologues that open and close the show spell out the religious critique too baldly. Some of the motivations are explained away tidily and a lot of the humour is puerile. But the puerile bits are particularly funny. (Though be forewarned: puppet fellatio is something you can't unsee.) Askins is smart and engaged enough that even the play's most outrageous actions seem grounded in character. Speaking of characters and those who play them, if Steven Boyer's name isn't on the best actor ballot come Tony time, then those awards are broken. Boyer, a slight and moon-faced blond who looks at least a decade younger than he is, plays both Jason and Tyrone, most often at the same time.
Robert Feldberg, NorthJersey.com: If you're religious, you might see Tyrone as the Devil; if you're psychologically inclined, you'll regard him as the uncorking of Jason's repressed id, an escape hatch for sorrow and confusion. Either way, Boyer's performance - remarkable both for his acting and his dexterity - is a sight to behold. Under the direction again of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, "Hand to God" seemed to me better than it was off-Broadway - faster, rowdier and more assured. If its message of human folly doesn't register as profoundly as playwright Askins seems to have intended, it's still a very clever, extremely entertaining show.
Gordon Cox, Boston Herald: God may have created the heavens and the earth and all living things -- but the Devil surely created Tyrone, the filthy-minded, foul-mouthed sock puppet that has audiences howling at "Hand to God." Robert Askins' furiously funny comedy about adolescent rebellion against religious cant has made a smooth passage from workshop (at Ensemble Studio Theater) to Off Broadway (in an MCC production) to Broadway. Moritz von Stuelpnagel hasn't touched a hair on the head of his clever production and the original cast is still golden. At 800 seats, the intimate Booth proves extremely hospitable to this fiendish little satire of all things holy.
Charles Isherwood, The New York Times: In a Broadway season dominated by the usual fodder - musicals new and old, and a healthy serving of Important British Dramas - Mr. Askins's black comedy about the divided human soul, previously seen in two separate Off Broadway runs, stands out as a misfit both merry and scary, and very welcome...Mr. Boyer's performance as Jason is tender and touching, his performance as Tyrone outlandish and hilarious; put them together and you have that rarely seen (although often hailed) acting achievement: a true tour de force...What makes the play so sneakily resonant is how Mr. Askins exposes the base impulses, the sexual, self-destructive, potentially violent ones, that just about everyone harbors to some small degree... Pick up a newspaper and you read another grim report about men and women little older than Jason succumbing to far more destructive passions. Maybe if more of the world's troubled youth discharged their demons with the help of sock puppets, things might not look so grim.
Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post: Don't let his big eyes, tuft of red hair and argyle sweater fool you: Tyrone is a profane, horny, violent little psycho - and funny as hell, too. He's found his match in actor Steven Boyer, who plays Tyrone, the star of Broadway's bonkers new comedy "Hand to God," with manic, demented intensity...But it's Boyer's virtuosic performance that defines "Hand to God," as he seamlessly toggles between Jason and Tyrone - and if the actor doesn't win a Tony for this, there's no justice in this world. Boyer endows a sock puppet with fabulous expressiveness. Just watch how the little fellow's arms shake with rage when he reaches out to strangle someone - it's simultaneously hilarious and scary, like the play itself.
Ronni Reich, The Star-Ledger: The story of a teenager who may or may not have a possessed puppet on his arm, Robert Askins' "Hand to God" is a rare truly communal dramatic experience, with the power to make an audience collectively shake with laughter, gasp in shock and rise to a giddy ovation...But the gleefully profane piece has already proven itself as a hit, and it lives up to its reputation...Boyer, who recently played the Fool in "King Lear" at the Public Theater, is a virtuosic puppeteer as well as a sensitive actor. He's sympathetic as the broken, painfully shy Jason and spot-on as the tough-talking Tyrone. The wild energy and precision with which he switches between the two personalities is stunning.
Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune: ...In this highly original and laudably fearless and politically incorrect piece - far indeed from the usual fare here - playwright Robert Askins has essentially taken this performance tradition further...Von Stuelpnagel's cast certainly goes everywhere this piece asks it to go, but the actors also convey a sense of ordinary folks struggling with the chaos that life can suddenly inflict on us all, whether it's in the form of troubled teenagers or bereavement or unfulfilled desire. That compassion is what takes "Hand to God" beyond the usual condescension you find on Broadway toward Texans or people of faith in general...Boyer, the remarkable star of this enterprise, is thoroughly believable at every moment..."
Robert Hofler, The Wrap: Since Askins possesses such a warped sense of humor, he'll probably take this as a compliment, but by far the most interesting characters in "Hand to God" are the puppets, not the humans. Except for Timothy, they aren't that vivid, although Stiles is outrageously droll when it comes to having her hand puppet Jolene service Tyrone..."Hand to God" is a good night in the theater, but it does not offer the consistently inspired insanity of Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," wherein all the characters rivet us with their individual madness. The big difference, of course, is that Durang is a veteran and Askins, at age 34, is making his Broadway debut. The theater of the absurd (or the ridiculous, the bizarre, or whatever it's being called today) is in good hands, and the mantle has been passed to very capable hands.
Linda Winer, Newsday: Last spring Off-Broadway, "Hand to God" was a wicked little church satire about a small-town Texas teen whose sock puppet is possessed by the devil. Improbably pumped up for Broadway, with a lot more yelling and joke-pounding, the offbeat reverence shrinks in charm and impact. Robert Askins' gory yet sweet-natured spoof feels more like a drawn-out sketch, and the gleeful dirty-talk gets childish when hammered by good actors encouraged to shriek. Despite the bible ripping and the "have-a-blessed-day" pieties, however, "Hand to God" is as much about religion as "Avenue Q" is about Sesame Street. Both are just diving boards to bounce dangerous thoughts into safe water.
Adam Feldman, TimeOut NY: Praise be to the angels behind it: Hand to God has made it to Broadway. No need for heavenly choir music, though, because the reception the play deserves is the one it gets nightly at the Booth: roars of gleeful laughter. Some have wondered whether Robert Askins's outrageous dark comedy-about a sweet Christian teen, Jason (Steven Boyer), and his demonic puppet, Tyrone-would work as well in a larger venue as in its two hit Off Broadway runs. The answer is a resounding, full-throated yes. The freshest and funniest Broadway comedy in years, Hand to God is to plays as The Book of Mormon is to musicals: a welcome breath of foul air.
David Finkle, The Huffington Post: Tyrone is a puppet with sharp teeth that lives at the end of the right arm belonging to timid Jason (Steven Boyer). The fabric creature struts his considerable stuff in Hand to God, Robert Askins's career-making play that has now and for all the best reasons been transferred from off-off-Broadway to off-Broadway to Broadway, at the Booth...Boyer -- who resembles Irving Penn's photographs of the young Truman Capote -- is giving a career-making performance every bit equal to Askins's work. He's utterly captivating, utterly heart-breaking in his transition from a shy boy with a puppeteering inclination to a terrified young man in possibly unbreakable thrall to a virtually autonomous bully who's not reluctant to declare himself the Devil...The truth is, that the Hand to God assault on religion as irrevocable healer both tickles the ribs and gives them a powerful punch.
Gordon Cox, Variety: God may have created the heavens and the earth and all living things - but the Devil surely created Tyrone, the filthy-minded, foul-mouthed sock puppet that has audiences howling at "Hand to God." Robert Askins' furiously funny comedy about adolescent rebellion against religious cant has made a smooth passage from workshop (at Ensemble Studio Theater) to Off Broadway (in an MCC production) to Broadway. Moritz von Stuelpnagel hasn't touched ahair on the head of his clever production and the original cast is still golden. At 800 seats, the intimate Booth proves extremely hospitable to this fiendish little satire of all things holy.
Jeremy Gerard, Deadline: There are many reasons to celebrate the arrival on Broadway of Hand To God. It wraps its seriousness in a veneer of XXX-rated irreverence. I don't know which I want to do more: Sing Hallelujah - or wash its dirty little mouth out with soap...Smaller in scale, song-free and purposely looking as though it was produced on a Cookie Monster-sale budget, Hand To God is a Book Of Revelations about what should be possible on Broadway, that one-time cultural bazaar that has come more and more to resemble a high-priced mausoleum...the best reason to make your way to the Booth Theatre is to see the most astonishing pair of performances by a single actor since Nina Arianda's Broadway debut in Venus In Fur...Praise Ensemble Studio Theater for the development production, MCC Theater for pushing Hand To God to the next level and a pack of producers led by Kevin McCollum for believing there's a place on Broadway for transgressive humor.
Jesse Green, Vulture: ...the dark comedy more nearly approaches its darkness in Act Two, with the consequences of human outrageousness brought to the foreground, the tale becomes more emotionally legible, and at times even heartbreaking. It's a credit to the director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, and the performers, especially Geneva Carr as Margery and Marc Kudisch as Pastor Greg...Steven Boyer, whose role is almost too dimensional for its own good. Although he tosses off with admirable ease the daunting challenge of playing both Jason and Jason-as-Tyrone, often in furious conversation with one another, there is something unsatisfying in the role's construction that he cannot quite overcome. Usually an actor must integrate the various strands of information suggested by the play's conflicts in order to create a coherent character. Here, the character is created by segregation: All the showy, aggressive traits get put into Tyrone, all the sadness and delicacy into Jason. As a result, the more Boyer succeeds, the less either half of his success resonates...
Robert Kahn, NBC New York: Boyer so skillfully separates the roles of awkward teen and possessed puppet you can forget you're watching just one performer. Carr, too, is super-likable as a woman susceptible to bad choices and blind to her son's struggles...There are stand-alone scenes in "Hand to God" that will floor you....Structurally, "Hand to God" never quite adds up to the sum of its brilliant parts. There are only so many ways we can be told that faith isn't quite enough, and that we need to find specific ways of dealing with our problems..."Hand to God" helped me finally see the allure in using a puppet to express feelings. It offers distance from ourselves, enabling us to say what we mean-what we feel-without tripping over the baggage that makes it hard to be a human: Will what I say hurt feelings? Is it morally dicey? Is it perverted? There's obviously some Tyrone in all of us. Praise the devil he's found a way to be heard?
David Rooney, The Hollywood Reporter: Bold new American plays by unestablished dramatists too seldom make it to Broadway, so this commercially risky endeavor - a challenge approached head-on by producers in their amusing marketing campaign - is to be applauded. The show also brings a welcome breath of fresh air via a director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, new to the commercial theater mainstream, and a talented ensemble of five actors, only one of whom, Marc Kudisch, is a Broadway regular. The sharp production has evolved over two hit off-Broadway incarnations, increasing in size with each move, and it now sits quite snugly in the still-intimate confines of the Booth Theatre...Director von Stuelpnagel and his terrific cast tackle this darkly funny material with a shrewd balance of heightened reality, warped sitcom and underlying pathos, landing all the jokes while never denying the genuine sorrow and anger driving both Jason and Margery to such erratic behavior...The five actors couldn't be better...But the real virtuoso performance is Boyer's. Whether trembling with fear as the deeply unhappy, reedy-voiced Jason or with power-crazed tyranny, wild irreverence and thundering rage as Tyrone, he creates two entirely distinct characters that give the illusion of existing independently of one another. Together, they somehow add up to one messed-up but affectingly real kid. Forgive the pun, but Boyer deserves a big hand.
Mark Kennedy, Associated Press: Playwright Robert Askins' bracing comedy, mixes violence, swearing, brutal honesty, parental failure, church hypocrisy, and plenty of sex - of both human and puppet varieties. But beware: It's a show for those who consider "Avenue Q" too tame, for folks who think Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, is too neutered...The cast is great, made up of Boyer, Michael Oberholtzer and Sarah Stiles playing three teens - and the adults played by Geneva Carr, who portrays Boyer's character's mom, and the gravelly voiced Marc Kudisch as the righteous but horny church pastor...Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs with a flair for allowing the play's little absurdities to reveal themselves naturally and a skill with onstage physicalit...Beowulf Boritt's set is spot-on...Askins at times seems to fumble for a deeper meaning about the individual getting lost in the collective, but while he comes close to profundity, it's really his cast that leaves an impression. Especially Tyrone. He'll keep you up at night.
Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News: The new Broadway comedy "Hand to God" is so ridiculously raunchy, irreverent and funny it's bound to leave you sore from laughing. Ah, hurts so good...As in two earlier downtown runs of the show, Steven Boyer stars as Jason, and his acting and puppeteering are exceptional. Watching him do battle against his own dark side - Tyrone appears to yank him like a rag doll - is as good as physical comedy gets. It can't be outdone - and shouldn't be missed...But Askins, in his Broadway debut, proves deft at writing dialogue that's hysterical and at serving up insights about organized religion and family dysfunction. He's unapologetically profane - prompting a handful of walkouts after a line about body fluids at a recent performance. Their loss. Ultimately, Askins gets to what pain does to people. All the characters - even the cloth one - are up to their eyeballs in agony. Under the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the production zips by. It's not typical Broadway fare, but all involved deserve a big hand.
Matt Windman, amNewYork: "Hand to God" -- a dark, irreverent and smart comedy by the young, previously unknown playwright Peter Askins -- is one hell of a great success story, having graduated step by step from off Off-Broadway to Off-Broadway to finally Broadway itself. This 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 place...Yet despite 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.
Stephen Collins, BritishTheatre.com: Written by Robert Askins and directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Hand To God plays like an obsidian black farce which turns on those stock elements of farce - violence, sex and religion. The extremity of those elements and their use here is what differentiates this from a run of the mill farce. And the fact that, once you have wiped away the tears of laughter, unlike most farces, images and concepts remain with you. It is really only then that you realise that Askins has used the device of the farce to say quite a few remarkably insightful things. It may look like a farce, play like a farce, be funny like a farce, but it is a state-of-society satire with real bite in more than one of its tales. This is a major new work, a satirical social commentary masquerading as a silly farce about a demonic puppet. The form Askins uses is pitch-perfect for the content he wants to explore. If you want Avenue Q or Sooty, prepare to be shocked and cruelly disappointed. Otherwise, prepare for one of the best new American plays in many a Broadway season.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus