God may have created the heavens and the earth and all living things — but the Devil surely created Tyrone, the filthy-minded, foul-mouthed sock puppet that has audiences howling at “Hand to God.” Robert Askins’ furiously funny comedy about adolescent rebellion against religious cant has made a smooth passage from workshop (at Ensemble Studio Theater) to Off Broadway (in an MCC production) to Broadway. Moritz von Stuelpnagel hasn’t touched a hair on the head of his clever production and the original cast is still golden. At 800 seats, the intimate Booth proves extremely hospitable to this fiendish little satire of all things holy.
Tyrone initially appears as himself — a disembodied puppet who delivers a profane creation myth about the “evil bastard” who first created good and evil to control his fellow creatures, and who then created the devil to make everyone feel guilty for trying to have a little fun. But when the lights go up on a cheery room in a church basement, Tyrone has left the building.
A puppet ministry for teens is in session in this poster-plastered basement room (designed with cloying Christian cuteness by Beowulf Boritt) somewhere in Texas. It’s a pathetic turnout for poor Margery (the wonderful Geneva Carr, precariously poised between pious purpose and godless hysteria), the adult responsible for organizing a presentation for next week’s church service.
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Only three participants have showed up for puppet practice, not one of them prepared to praise the Lord. Timothy (a terrifically uninhibited perf from Michael Oberholtzer) is the class bad boy, a big, strapping lad whose raging hormones are fixated on a totally inappropriate love object. Jessica (Sarah Stiles, a sly charmer 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 (Steven Boyer), is Margery’s excruciatingly shy son, and he couldn’t be more mortified to be put in this humiliating position.
Jason is in a state of emotional crisis brought on by the death of his father. His pent-up anger at the father who deserted him has somehow fuelled both his rebellious thoughts about his mother’s Christian faith and his own forbidden sexual urges. Although he hasn’t brought a gun to church and gone on a bloody rampage, he has conjured up Tyrone to think his bad thoughts for him and speak his unspeakable words. Sweet, naive Jason and the devil-doll twin who has taken possession of his left hand are both distinctly individual characters, and both of them are fully embodied in Boyer’s sensational performance.
To complicate Jason’s life, 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 take no for an answer.
But when Margery does give in to her repressed urges, she doesn’t fall into the arms of kindly, horny Pastor Greg. She throws herself into a ferocious bout of down-and-dirty sex — choreographed with wonderful abandon by helmer Stuelpnagel, presumably with the assistance of fight director Robert Westley — with an entirely different, unexpected partner.
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 more menacing.
Clearly, this is a battle of wills. “I don’t want to have to hurt anyone,” Jason says. “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 about that.
The payoff comes in the second act, after Jason/Tyrone has totally gone over to the dark side, as evidenced in the riotous physical transformation of the church basement into the devil’s own lair. In this dark night of Jason’s soul, Jessica arrives with 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’ 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 powerless 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.