BY NAVEEN KUMAR
The titular appendage in Hand to God, playwright Robert Askins’ wickedly hysterical play that opened on Broadway last night at the Booth Theatre, goes by the name of Tyrone. He delivers some of the most apt criticism of western religion you’re ever likely to hear, and has zero tolerance for B.S.—including from the hand that wears him. A sharp-tongued (and awesomely foul-mouthed) sock puppet, Tyrone may or may not in fact be possessed by the devil. Forget everything you know about puppet shows: On the hand of a preternaturally masterful Stephen Boyer, this puppet is unlike any other you’ve seen before.
Askin’s play, which transfers to Broadway after a critically acclaimed run Off Broadway at MCC last spring, is set in a small Texas town, where a few teenage kids meet at the local ministry to rehearse a puppet pageant and stay out of trouble. Jason and his mother Margery (who leads the puppet group) are both reeling from the recent loss of his father to a heart attack. For Marge, running the group seems like a much-needed distraction; for Jason and his puppet Tyrone, it’s a lot more than just that.
Aside from his recent loss, Jason is a shy, quiet type, and giving voice to his puppet helps raise the volume on his own. Tyrone starts out like the devil on Jason’s shoulder, a wisecracking voice for thoughts the boy might not otherwise say himself. It’s how he first connects with Jessica (a wonderfully droll Sarah Stiles) the girl he likes in class, and later how he lashes back at Timothy, his cocky, oversexed rival (a perfectly bro-ey Michael Oberholtzer).
But it quickly becomes clear that Tyrone has a mind of his own, or at least a will separate from Jason’s, who can’t just take him off as he pleases. By the play’s second act, blood is drawn, puppet sex is had, and it seems an exorcism may be in order. Yet still, his puppet’s violent temper and wild libido are qualities Jason could use himself in moderation—courage to stand up for himself and the nerve to get the girl.
Boyer reprises his mind-boggling, virtuosic performance as Jason (and Tyrone), spending much of the play in conversation with his own left hand—from acting out an Abbot-and-Costello routine to impress Jessica, to full-on hand-to-sock combat. Jason and Tyrone are so distinct in personality and their two-way dialogue is so convincing, at times it’s astonishing to step back and realize you’re watching a single performance.
Joining the others from the Off-Broadway cast, Geneva Carr is equally warm and maniacal as Marge, who doesn’t get along with the other church mothers, and who attracts equally ardent attention from Pastor Greg (an ever charming Marc Kudisch), and hormonal Timothy, making her the apex of a twisted (and surprisingly athletic) love triangle.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel scales up the production from its downtown digs, keeping the action moving swiftly around its rotating set and amping up the laughs for a larger crowd, while also firmly grounding the play's human (non-puppet) drama. The stellar company reprises its expert performances with assurance, fueled by the uproarious energy of a Broadway audience.
Often shockingly funny, the play's disarming humor makes its dark conclusions all the more startling. We’re accustomed to puppets who have something to teach us, like the difference between good and evil. Tyrone's lesson that the two go inextricably hand-in-hand is likely to stick in your mind longer than most.
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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)