Broadway has gone to hell and a hand puppet—and that’s a good thing. Hand to God, the alarmingly visceral new American play by Robert Askins is a jolt of theater that the Great White Way has been waiting for.
The violent and funny work takes place “somewhere in Texas where the country meets the city” and follows the emotional wreckage of teenager Jason (Steven Boyer) as he attempts to come to terms with the death of his father with the help of a Christian after-school puppet workshop taught by his widowed mother Margery (Geneva Carr). Fellow students Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) and Jessica (Sarah Stiles) play witness to Jason’s odd behavior and exceptional talent for puppetry as he finds his voice through his alter ego/sock puppet, Tyrone. Enter Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) as the hands-on man of the cloth, who persistently tries to persuade Margery to let go of her grief in a more carnal manner. Meanwhile, Timothy has his own pinings for Margery and his teenage testosterone gets the both of them. As the days wear on, the puppet (a.k.a Tyrone) becomes a more consuming presence in Jason’s life, giving voice to Jason’s tormented emotional state through a series of verbally and physically violent episodes.
Askins’ play functions brilliantly on multiple levels, tackling sweeping themes like religion and parenthood, as well as intimate ones such as the death of a parent or first love. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel helms the play with the precision of a race car driver, kicking the action into high gear when necessary but gratefully allowing the prose to coast along through uncomfortable, yet emotion-filled silences. Framing it all is an ingenious set by Beowulf Boritt, whose segmented unit set splits upon itself much like the lobotomized emotional state of its protagonist.
As Jason/Tyrone, Boyer is a chameleon of physical and vocal creativity as he embodies the growing presence of the character’s dark alter ego. Carr tackles the heightened emotion of his mother with furor, morphing from tightly wound after-school teacher to a sexually depraved woman in the midst of a complete nervous breakdown. Oberholtzer and Stiles are given a bit less to work with in terms of depth of character, but their deadpan deliveries are spot-on, adding to the believability in even the most extreme circumstances. And as the pastor with a knack for a well-spun phrase, Kudisch is exceptional, able to garner equal parts empathy and laughter as he befuddles his way through unexpected crises.
But it is playwright Robert Askins who has torn the fabric of traditional Broadway consumption to pieces. Askins, who has written a dozen plays, is still tending bar in Brooklyn. In a recent piece for Playbill, he wrote, “It is nice that while so much has changed, in the theatre and in New York, that a person from nowhere, writing while they work—a very, very lucky person—still has the chance to make something people want to see. As long as they do the best to tell the truth.”
The truths that Askins speaks of in Hand to God—grief, rage, and love—manifest in unspeakable ways. Just ask Tyrone, if you dare.
Hand to God
222 West 45th Street