Hand to God begins and ends with the play’s puppet star, Tyrone, monologuing about religion’s role in society and theorizing about why communities create both satans and saviors. By itself, this material might be edgy enough for a mainstream Broadway crowd. But between these brain-tickling verbal book-ends lies one of the most irreverent, visually arresting, raucous, bloody, sexy, dark, and politically incorrect comedies to grace these tourist-frequented stages in recent memory.
Yes, other shows have taken a satiric look at religion (famously, Book of Mormon). And other shows have featured puppets in adult situations, having sex (namely Avenue Q). But, Hand to God manages to top those previous efforts in outrageousness and intensity while simultaneously – and this is most impressive – cutting deeper with its portrayal of characters in disturbing but believable states of crisis. In other words, the extra outrageousness is earned. And, while the content is certainly not for everyone, it is no wonder that this play has been showered with multiple Tony nominations.
The story centers around a classroom at a Lutheran church in Cypress, Texas, where recently widowed Margery (Geneva Carr) counsels teens and teaches them about the Bible with the aid of sock puppets. (Lest you question the authenticity of this conceit, playwright Robert Askins’ mother taught Christian Puppet Ministry in real life.)
Margery’s only three students are nerdy/cute Jessica (Sarah Stiles, who stole the show as Little Red Ridinghood in Public Theater’s outdoor Into the Woods), delinquent troublemaker Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) and Margery’s own shy and awkward son Jason (Steven Boyer). Adding an extra complication to the plot is Pastor Greg (the always entertaining Marc Kudisch) who pursues Margery’s affections in hilariously unskilled fashion.
But, the real star of the ensemble is Tyrone, Jason’s puppet (simultaneously performed by Boyer.) Tyrone is the opposite of his meek owner – loud, provocative, unfiltered, and ultimately destructive. It is Tyrone’s caustic words and actions, plus Margery’s sexual misbehavior with the underage Timothy, that drives the show’s plot.
The juice that feeds that plot is the recent death of Margery’s husband / Timothy’s father. While it remains uncertain through most of the play whether Timothy is truly possessed and his puppet has a mind of its own, or whether Timothy is expressing his emotions through this googly-eyed sock creation, what becomes clear is that, at its core, the show is about characters dealing with profound grief.
Through the shock-value lines, the uninhibited sex (both human and puppet), the wince- inducing violence and blood, what nevertheless makes this production most memorable is Steven Boyer’s jaw-dropping split personality performance as Jason and Tyrone (Askins wrote the play with Boyers and Carr in mind). It is a comedic tour de force, honed through the play’s long development, which began as part of Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Youngblood program, a collective of emerging playwrights under the age of 30, back in 2011.
Hand to God is almost certainly the edgiest play on Broadway, but thanks to how Robert Askins has built the script upon relatable emotions, it delivers far more than shock.
Hand to God is playing at the Booth Theatre in New York City through October 4th, 2015.