When you enter the Broadway’s Booth Theatre to see Robert Askins’ play, Hand to God, you’re looking at a Sunday School classroom in Texas with cinderblock walls painted blue and windows high enough to let you know it’s in the basement. Posters with wholesome Christian messages are neatly hung there, and a small puppet theater stage seems to be awaiting a performance. All seems sweet and pleasant.
The genial atmosphere is momentarily darkened by a brow-furrowing monologue from a puppet about the nature of good and evil. And then we’re back in Sunday School with three young people — nervous Jason (Steven Boyer), bored Jessica (Sarah Stiles) and bad boy Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer). Jason’s mother Margery (Geneva Carr) is in charge, trying to get the young folks to enter into the “fun” of puppetry.
Before long it becomes apparent that Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, has a life of its own, quite contrary to the shy kid on whose arm he is planted. Tyrone is foul-mouthed, crass, anti-religious and inappropriate in every imaginable way. Is he a dark side of Jason, or is he some wholly separate demon who has evilly attached himself to the awkward teenager? Boyer masters the startling dichotomy of these two roles, often having harsh conversations and violent interactions between them. We are probably meant to take this, to some extent, as an outward reflection of Jason’s inner turmoil. Boyer’s dazzling and demented performance is both entertaining and frightening, simultaneously playing characters as opposite as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (Boyer was a 2015 Tony nominee for his performance). Stiles, too, handles some puppetry in the second act when the busty girl she has crafted enters vigorously into, shall we say, “intimate relations” with Tyrone — while the two teens seemingly ignore the encounter. It’s the show’s hilarious and twisted high point.
Familiar TV actor Bob Saget recently moved into the role of the church’s pastor, but he doesn’t really add much to the action. Carr, on the other hand, has her own demons to wrestle with, and she covers an incredible emotional range — from God-fearing Sunday School teacher to a sex-starved middle-aged divorcée, with stops along the way for several wholly inappropriate moments with teenage thug Timothy.
There are many laugh-out-loud moments in this off-kilter play (which will move to London early next year; the final Broadway performance is Jan. 3, 2016). But the battle between good and evil — especially the post-intermission sacrilegious demolition of the Sunday School classroom — has left some audience members feeling rather queasy, I suspect. Nevertheless, since seeing this performance on Nov. 13, I have continued to ponder the message. That’s something that provocative theater can do, and I have to hand it to Hand to God: It got me thinking.
This play is probably too extreme to find its way to a Cincinnati theater. It has some qualities of Fringe Festival productions, but even Know Theatre might have a hard time selling this one to local audiences.
HAND TO GOD is onstage at Booth Theatre in New York through Jan. 3. More info: HandToGodBroadway.com