Review: Ambitious 'Hand to God' mixes violence and puppets

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — There's one character who doesn't get any bio in the Playbill at "Hand to God" but probably should. That would be Tyrone.

Sure, a good reason for that is that Tyrone is a sock puppet, but he's so expertly controlled by actor Steven Boyer that he seems like a sixth member of the cast even though you can see Boyer's lips moving.

The play Tyrone is starring in, which opened Tuesday at the Booth Theatre, is a lot like him: Messed-up, angry, needy, dark and in desperate need of mental help.

Set in a current-day Texas church basement, it's got three teens and two adults who over the course of a few days struggle with society's expectations and religious precepts. It's like nothing else on Broadway and a brave choice both to open here and to attend.

Playwright Robert Askins' bracing comedy, mixes violence, swearing, brutal honesty, parental failure, church hypocrisy, and plenty of sex — of both human and puppet varieties.

But beware: It's a show for those who consider "Avenue Q" too tame, for folks who think Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog, is too neutered. An extended puppet sex scene had some bawling and others searching for the exit.

The cast is great, made up of Boyer, Michael Oberholtzer and Sarah Stiles playing three teens — and the adults played by Geneva Carr, who portrays Boyer's character's mom, and the gravelly voiced Marc Kudisch as the righteous but horny church pastor.

Things take a turn toward the insane when Tyrone, starts having a mind and a voice of his own. Plus, he's a tad satanic. He wants his owner to toughen up and will do it for him if need be. Tyrone trusts no one.

"No matter what they say. They will leave us. Hurt us. Scream and rage. It's you and me kid. Just you and me. Like a Saturday night," Tyrone says, in one of the few printable passages.

Soon enough, everyone is at each other's throat, sick and tired of hiding who they are and what they want. If you want to blame Tyrone, go ahead: The playwright has already warned us in a monologue at the beginning that arguing the devil made me do it is a cornerstone of civilization.

Carr is superb as a recently widowed woman struggling with expectations and with raising her outcast son — played by a brilliant Boyer — and decides to teach puppetry to teens. Oberholtzer is solid as the town bully and Stiles shows real comedic chops as a love interest. Kudisch hysterically plays his straight-shooting pastor becoming increasingly unhinged.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs with a flair for allowing the play's little absurdities to reveal themselves naturally and a skill with onstage physicality, which involves some S&M, an ear lobe removal and a bloody finale with a hammer.

Beowulf Boritt's set is spot-on — complete with cinder-block walls and cheesy posters like "God Listens." One of the joys in the show is seeing what happens when Tyrone goes to town on it, complete with "666" graffiti and stuffed animals with their eyes plucked out. (That cheesy poster turns into "God Listens to Slayer.")

Askins at times seems to fumble for a deeper meaning about the individual getting lost in the collective, but while he comes close to profundity, it's really his cast that leaves an impression. Especially Tyrone. He'll keep you up at night.