If Avenue Q didn’t appropriately sate your appetite for explicit puppet carnality, then Robert Askins’ outrageous black comedy Hand to God will more than fit the bill. Two words: puppet motorboating (which has to be a theater first). But this marvelously unsettling play has more to offer than just raunch. If you read between the play’s wonderfully frazzled lines, it becomes rather intense study of demonic influence and addiction. (The show, which premiered at Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011-12 with much of the same cast, runs through March 30 at Off Broadway’s MCC Theater.)
Young Jason (Steven Boyer) is a withdrawn boy with a hand puppet named Tyrone, a button-eyed effigy with a shock of red stringy hair. Morphing from a Christian Puppet Ministry instrument to an explosively profane devil, Tyrone soon coerces the meek Jason into exploring his dark side. That is, when he isn?t performing fourth-wall-breaking narration on the nature of good and evil. (”Right is for all of us. Wrong is for just you!” Tyrone warns.) Jason’s mother, Margery (Geneva Carr), is mourning the loss of her husband and fending off the advances of both angsty, horndog student Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) and the ministry’s oily pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch, having a blast in a rare nonmusical role). And poor Jessica (Sarah Stiles), the sad-eyed girl in Jason?s puppet group on whom he harbors a crush, gets caught in the middle when Tyrone starts to wreak havoc.
Hand to God steadily raises the stakes in Act II, when its The Exorcist-meets-South Park aspirations fully come forth. Like both of those works, Askins’ play is more than meets the (button) eye. Jason’s battles with Tyrone become an apt metaphor for a number of other topical issues such as bullying and bipolar disorder. Though the whole cast is tremendously game under Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s direction, Boyer’s astonishing pas-de-un is truly special. Thrashing about the entirety of Beowulf Boritt’s amusing rec-room set, he redefines the term virtuosic. But his performance is also surprisingly tender, giving Hand to God much-needed poignancy to balance the no-holds-barred comedy (just wait until you get to that puppet sex scene). So don?t be surprised if some of the show’s laughs catch in your throat. A-