Hand to God, a delightfully subversive, dark comedy opened this week on Broadway at the Booth Theater after successful productions downtown by MCC Theater and Ensemble Studio Theater. Featuring a puppet provocateur called Tyrone wreaking destruction and devilish mayhem on a church schoolroom set, the actor Steven Boyer as Jason, whose task it is to give life to the gray wool mass swaddling his left hand, reminded everyone at the after party at Urbo, "Hey, it's only a sock!" But to the rest of the cast, like Geneva Carr, excellent as Jason's widowed libidinous mother, Tyrone is a being with whom to reckon.
Bookended by a puppet in a Punch-and-Judy, stage-telling a myth of origins and the introduction of good and evil, not exactly the way you know it, Hand to God closes with that puppet completing the story of Jesus -- simply the murder of the nicest guy around.
Playwright Robert Askins, shouted "Amen, amen, amen" after the performance, and it was not just gratitude for the standing ovation. Hand to God is as effective as a fire-and-brimstone sermon as it is a brilliant theater piece. Introducing himself as an "American" playwright, Askins took a not-so-subtle jab at his neighbors on West 45th street, the British imports, The Audience and Skylight. His sheer American-ness is unmistakable.
Set in Texas, in a Lutheran church, Hand to God follows in the tradition of American southern literature, its characters as confused about God's place in their lives as any troubled souls in works by William Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor. Tyrone's terror mirrors their primal urges. What other play has two young characters contemplate the school dance while manipulating their hand puppets having wild sex? How was that sex choreographed from foreplay to orgasm? Boyers said that fell to fellow actor Sarah Stiles' puppet experience and the skilled direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Stiles, as Jessica, utters a line to classmate Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) that knocked me off my seat, "You are so far in the closet, you're in Narnia." And that was just at the beginning!
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.