Hand to God reviews Off Broadway

Meet Tyrone, the dirty-minded, foul-mouthed sock puppet who steals the show in “Hand to God,” Robert Askins’ pitch-black comedy about a teenage boy (a sensational perf from Steven Boyer) whose rebellious thoughts and forbidden sexual urges cut loose and go on a bloody rampage after his father dies.   The theater dearly loves its devil dolls, and after three extended runs helmed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel at EST, the sweetly savage show gets the royal treatment in this Off Broadway transfer courtesy of MCC Theater.  And who’s to say that a savvy musical treatment might not push it into “Little Shop of Horrors” territory?  

If the devil happened to be in an antic mood, he’d find the perfect playroom in the poster-plastered Texas church basement (designed with cloying cuteness by Beowulf Boritt) where a puppet ministry for teens is in session.  It’s a pathetic turnout for poor Margery (the wonderful Geneva Carr, precariously poised between religious purpose and godless hysteria), the adult responsible for organizing a presentation for next week’s service.

Only three participants have shown up for puppet practice, not one of them prepared to praise the Lord.  Timothy (in a terrifically uninhibited perf from Michael Oberholtzer) is the class bad boy, a big bully whose raging hormones are a source of personal pride.  Jessica (Sarah Stiles, who starts sweet and innocent and goes on to greater things) shows interest in the art, but this is stupid kids’ stuff.  The third pupil, Jason (Boyer, who won an Obie for his earlier perf in the role), is Margery’s excruciatingly shy son, and he couldn’t be more mortified to be put in this humiliating position.

To complicate matters, Pastor Greg (a strapping specimen of a man of faith in Marc Kudisch’s solid perf) is putting the moves on Margery and doesn’t seem to get the subtle, tactful, underlying message of “NO!”

But when Margery does give in to her repressed urges, she doesn’t fall into the gentle arms of kindly Pastor Greg.  Rather, she throws herself into a ferocious bout of down-and-dirty sex — choreographed with hilarious abandon by helmer Stuelpnagel, presumably with the assistance of fight director Robert Westley — with bad boy Timothy.

These tense group dynamics do not get past Tyrone, who shrewdly keeps his counsel until it’s time to strike.  The puppet isn’t especially scary in his early personification — just a goofy-looking piece of felt and yarn, with black button eyes and a fringe of red hair, that looks a little like Jason.  It isn’t until Jason starts acting out that the little devil morphs into a genuine horror.  His color darkens, his mouth grows teeth and drips with blood, and his private conversations with Jason become increasingly hostile.

Clearly, this is a battle of wills.  “I don’t want to have to hurt anyone,” says Jason.  “I want to be kind and respectful to women, I want to care for my body and my mind.”  But Tyrone has other, unprintable ideas that sound nasty, but basically come down to:  “I want you to toughen the fuck up.”

The payoff comes in the second act, when Jessica finally finishes her own puppet, a lusty, busty girl puppet named Jolene.  At the hands of puppet designer Marte Johanne Ekhougen, the little people look a bit like Muppets and sound a bit like the gang in “Avenue Q.”  But their voices — Askins’ many voices, that is — are entirely original.

In a truth-telling moment that’s as touching as it is screamingly funny, the two teens quietly share their deepest thoughts about being young and at the mercy of idiot adults who behave in idiotic ways — while Tyrone and Jolene have enthusiastically athletic sex.  The puppetry is amazing and so are the professional skills of the puppeteers.

Askins’ most impressive talent, though is his ability to make us laugh while juggling those big themes that make life so terrifying:  death; depression; alcoholism; sexual guilt; emotional repression; religious hypocrisy; and the eternal battle between your good puppet and your bad puppet.

Off Broadway Review: 'Hand to God'

Lucille Lortel Theater; 199 seats; $99 top.  Opened March 10, 2014.  Reviewed March 8.  Running time:  ONE HOUR, 45 MIN.

Production

An MCC Theater presentation, by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Theater Foundation, of a play in two acts by Robert Askins.  

Creative

Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.  Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Sydney Maresca; lighting, Jason Lyons, sound, Jill BC Du Boff; puppet design, Marte Johanne Ekhougen; fight direction, Robert Westley; production stage manager, Rachel Bauder.

Cast

Steven Boyer, Geneva Carr, Michael Oberholtzer, Sarah Stiles, Marc Kudisch.

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