BWW Review: HAND TO GOD is a Pitch Black Comedy Perfectly Executed
HAND TO GOD is a fiendishly funny black comedy about the divided human soul written by Robert Askins. It was originally produced Off-Broadway in 2011 and 2014 and made it's Broadway debut in 2015, receiving five Tony Award nominations, including for Best New Play. Described by Askins as an "irreverent puppet comedy...about a possessed Christian-ministry puppet," the play takes it's title comes from a Southern expression about honesty. Capital T is currently presenting the regional premiere of the play in a production that is as good as theatre gets.
Set in the deeply religious and quiet small town of Cypress, Texas, Margery (Rebecca Robinson) is a widow whose husband has recently passed away. To keep her occupied, Pastor Greg (Kenneth Wayne Bradley), has asked her to run the puppet club, a teen ministry known as "The Christkateers." The teenage members of the club are her son Jason (Chase Brewer); Jessica (Theresa Baldwin), the girl Jason has a crush on; and Timothy (Brad Rothwell), the teen troublemaker who is only there because his mother is attending AA meetings at the church. The teenage sexual tension in this church basement is palpable. When Pastor Greg demands that Margery's puppet club put on a performance at the church next Sunday, Jason's hand puppet, Tyrone, takes on a life of his own, announcing that he is Satan and expressing secrets that everyone would rather have left unexpressed.
Black comedies don't come any blacker than HAND TO GOD or any funnier. What makes Askins' play so effective is how he exposes all of the base impulses that are lurking just under the surface in everyone to varying degrees. Almost all of these characters are fighting urges that get released because of unresolved and unaddressed pressure. For Margery and Jason it is the grief from the loss of a family member. For Timothy it is his mother's alcoholism and subsequent non-involvement in his life. For Pastor Greg it's his loneliness and unrequited lust for Margery.
Director Mark Pickell once again shows what a true gift he has for the genre. The pacing and timing are absolutely perfect and he brings truly exceptional performances out of every member of this cast. His set is also a technical marvel that adroitly changes locales. Patrick Anthony has done an amazing job with the lighting. His work in the sequence where Margery and Jason are driving is simply brilliant. I also applaud Lowell Bartholomee for his sound design which enhances the action in all the best possible ways.
Chase Brewer gives a deft and commanding performance as Jason and Tyrone, making clear separations of the two with a lightning quick dexterity. As Jason he is tenderhearted and moving and as Tyrone he is monstrous and coarsely funny. His many scenes where he carries on conversations with Tyrone make you forget this is an actor basically acting with himself. The delineation of characters is remarkable.
Rebecca Robinson delivers an absolutely fearless performance as Margery, once again proving why she is one of Austin's favorite actresses. The relationship between mother and son is grounded and totally believable. Her underlying uncertainty and unease combine to tumultuously funny effect in her scenes with Timothy. I don't want to spoil anything, just trust me here.
Kenneth Wayne Bradley presents a wonderfully grounded Pastor Greg making him the calm center at the eye of the storm. His unrequited interest in Margery is achingly sad. Theresa Baldwin is both charming and hysterical as Jessica. Her scene with Jason and their puppets was side-splittingly funny and a real highlight of the evening. Rounding out the cast as the hormone driven teen Timothy, was a perfectly smarmy performance by Brad Rothwell. His exit was uproariously funny. This was his debut Austin performance and I feel safe in saying we will be seeing more of him.
Capital T once again delivers the goods with this exceptional production. I always know when I go see a Capital T show that I will be seeing cutting edge theatre with something important to say. While the piece is blackly comedic, it also has a tender center to it that really delivers the goods at the end of the evening. HAND TO GOD is a perfectly produced piece of theatre that gets my highest recommendation. Make your reservations now, because this show will sell out.
HAND TO GOD: by Robert Askins
Running time: Approximately One Hour and 45 Minutes including one intermission. Contains adult language and situations.
HAND TO GOD, produced by Capital T Theatre, plays Hyde Park Theatre (511 W43rd St) Aug. 18 - Sep. 17, 2016. Performances are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm. Tickets $20 and $30 plus service fee, available via BuyPlayTix.