I was ready for an irreverent, foul-mouthed comedy that would make me laugh out loud, and that’s exactly what I got seeing Hand to God at the Booth Theatre. The play, written by Robert Askins, played MCC in 2014 and the Ensemble Studio Theatre from 2011-2012, and the advertising makes it seem like a cousin to Avenue Q. If having puppets and bad language is enough to link the two, then I guess that is correct, but Hand to God more than stands on its own.
The story takes place in a church in rural Texas where Margery (played dangerously and deliciously by Geneva Carr) is leading a church puppetry group that includes her son, Jason (Steven Boyer), a misfit named Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), and a rather brainy girl named Jessica (Sarah Stiles). Margery’s husband died six months prior, and she has thrown herself into making this small puppet group a success. Timothy is attending the group to basically harass everyone else, especially Jason, poking fun at his puppet, Tyrone. One of the play’s best lines occurs very early when Jessica accuses Timothy of being gay when he is certainly anything but. He retorts, “Let’s see if you can taste the gay when I nut in your mouth!” Half of the audience roared, and I’m sure half wasn’t sure what he meant. I was a roarer.
With the taunting by Timothy, the pressure by his mother to participate in the puppet group, and the pain from his father’s death, Jason develops an alternate personality embodied by his puppet, Tyrone. Tyrone is blunt where Jason is shy and backward; Tyrone curses and calls people out on their crap while Jason remains quiet and reserved. Needless to say, when Tyrone fully emerges he wrecks quite a bit of havoc. So skilled is Steven Boyer at playing both Jason and Tyrone that I accepted them as separate entities, as does his mother Margery and Pastor Greg (Marc Kudish, looking bow-legged in his khakis – not sure if it is the khakis, the way he is carrying himself, or if he actually IS bow-legged, but I’ve never noticed it when I’ve seen him before), both of whom think the puppet is possessed by Satan. Jessica, the object of Jason’s affection, knows what is really going on and hatches a plan of her own to (hilariously) deal with the situation.
If director Moritz von Stuelpnagel fails the material at all it is near the end when there is some shocking violence that is so well handled and intense that it makes it difficult to laugh anymore. Or perhaps the playwright made things too deadly serious at the end, shifting the tone unnecessarily. Even if the play does fizzle out at the very end, the rest of it is so terribly enjoyable and wild and the small cast so game and talented that I recommend it to anyone not offended by simulated sock puppet fellatio. It’s real, people, and it’s beautiful.
*** out of ****