There are many reasons to celebrate the arrival on Broadway of Robert Askins’ Hand To God. It wraps its seriousness in a veneer of XXX-rated irreverence. I don’t know which I want to do more: Sing Hallelujah — or wash its dirty little mouth out with soap. It’s sexy in ways that veer from frat-boy to sophisticated. It’s blasphemous in word but its moral code is ferociously Old Testament. It’s probably no one’s idea of a Broadway show – but who would have thought The Book Of Mormon would appeal as much to the mah jongg crowd as to the hipperati?
Smaller in scale, song-free and purposely looking as though it was produced on a Cookie Monster-sale budget, Hand To God is a Book Of Revelations about what should be possible on Broadway, that one-time cultural bazaar that has come more and more to resemble a high-priced mausoleum.
Which is all well and good, but for me, the best reason to make your way to the Booth Theatre is to see the most astonishing pair of performances by a single actor since Nina Arianda’s Broadway debut in Venus In Fur. In that rollercoaster ride of sexual dominance and submission, Arianda managed quicksilver changes between an expletive-endowed no-name New York actress and a willful cultivated 19th-Century noblewoman. It is Steven Boyer’s fate, in Hand To God, to alternate between Jason, bully-bait Texas teen sentenced to the particular hell of a Christian after-school program – the Christian Puppet Ministry — and Tyrone, the ratty bug-eyed puppet attached to the end of his left arm. Subtlety is not Tyrone’s game. He speaks his (rather, Jason’s) mind, or more typically a part of him from the nether regions. Given the blissful ease with which Boyer executes the lightning switchbacks between the two, I’m tempted to rename the play Penis In Fur, and long may it run.
The program, which is run by Jason’s recently widowed and comically conflicted mother Margery (the endearing Geneva Carr who, like the rest of the cast, is repeating from the play’s off-Broadway run), is meant to develop a puppet pageant reflective of good churchy values. But Margery’s charges are a challenge: Timothy a snarling bully (Michael Oberholtzer, looking perfectly the part of a mean boy in an oversize body), who’s obviously not there by choice. Jessica (the superb Sarah Stiles) is at first a sweet wallflower though when pushed, she takes Jason’s lead and channels her inner anarchist through a puppet more than equal to the task of putting Tyrone in his place. (Which place, I’ll just say, is where all the XXXs come in.)
Overseeing them all is Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch, unrecognizable from his better-known persona as a musical-theater star), who uses babble-Biblespeak to put the make on Margery, who has his number. She does, however, yield to an unhealthy urge for Timothy, which sets off Jason/Tyrone in ways I can only compare to guerilla warfare and leads to a battle royal between the Devil and God that grows simultaneously obscene and riveting. A sex scene between Jason’s and Jessica’s puppets makes Avenue Q, to which Hand To God is too easily compared, look about as dangerous as Spongebob Squarepants.
The puppets are by Marte Johanne Ekhougen; the gloriously tacky sets by Beowulf Boritt, the taste-free costumes by Sydney Maresca and the subtly garish lighting by Jason Lyons. Clearly a singular vision is at work here, with playwright Robert Askins venturing successfully into territory — satire — rich with potholes. Much credit must also go to director Moritz von Stuelpnagel for finding grace notes of subtlety in an unsubtle work, making Hand To God more than just a raunchy joke.
Praise Ensemble Studio Theater for the development production, MCC Theater for pushing Hand To God to the next level and a pack of producers led by Kevin McCollum for believing there’s a place on Broadway for transgressive humor.