For an evil sock puppet who eventually bites a teenager’s ear off, Tyrone is quite the philosopher. In the prologue in Hand to God, Robert Askin’s funny, filthy, violent and sensitive play, Tyrone tells us that all the trouble began when some jerk “invented right and wrong,” which led to the invention of the devil. “When I have acted badly,” Tyrone concludes, “all I have to say is: The devil made me do it.”
Is Tyrone himself the devil? That’s what the characters in Cypress, Texas start thinking when he seems to take on a life of his own, although still the hand puppet of Jason (Steven Boyer), a gawky teenager who has been reluctantly participating in the Christian Puppet Ministry in his church basement. (Beowulf Boritt’s set is spot-on, and figures cleverly as the plot unfolds.)
Jason’s mother Margery (Geneva Carr) is in charge of putting on the puppet show, convinced to do so by the church’s Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), who is trying to distract her from the death of her husband (Jason’s father) six months earlier. Marge has enlisted her son and two other teenagers, Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), dim, reckless and handsome, who taunts and bullies Jason and has the hots for his mother, and Jessica (Sarah Stiles), whom Jason shyly adores.
On a break from puppet practice, Jason performs the old routine “Who’s on First” for Jessica, using Tyrone as the Costello to his Abbott. She is delighted by the performance and asks whether he has come up with the routine on his own. Yes, he replies.
“Liar,” Tyrone growls.
It’s the first time Tyrone seems to be speaking his own mind. He goes on to tell Jessica that Jason thinks she’s hot, “so hot he can’t keep from touching himself.” It’s the first and mildest of his rude comments, which quickly grow in foul-mouthed intensity and hilarity.
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Hand to God is not just a theatrical version of Triumph the Insult Dog. It is full of surprises. At times, it teeters close to horror: Jason tries to get rid of Tyrone, but it’s no use; even when he rips the puppet to shreds one night, the next morning, he wakes up in bed to find a reconstructed Tyrone spitting in his face. “You try to so much as take me off your hand, next time you wake up it’ll be with me stapled to your arm.”
There is also full-fledged, over-the-top satire. Each of the characters behaves in their own outlandish ways. But we aren’t able to dismiss them simply as caricatures, as we might in a Saturday Night Live sketch. We are made to understand that each is looking for ways to find relief from their pain.
Much of the credibility of the characters in this production, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, resides in the precise performances of each member of the cast – Sarah Stiles’ delightful deadpan expressions, Michael Oberholtzer’s terrific timing and physical comedy, Mark Kudisch’s revealing gestures – his Pastor Greg touches Margery a lot, as if offering her pastoral comfort, but actually indicating he too has the hots for her (although he wouldn’t put it that way.)
Boyer in particular is astonishing as Jason and Tyrone; they seem like two different members of the cast even as we see Boyer’s lips moving. Geneva Carr also gives an impressive performance, mirroring Jason’s ego-id fight with her own dual nature – her public goodness needing to be balanced with badness in sex.
This is not a play for children. There is generous use of expletives. There is sex in the show – rough sex by humans and, far more graphically, by puppets. But it is a show for adults, with hints of psychological insights beneath the hysterical exterior.
The triumph of Hand to God on Broadway is also a victory for Off-Off Broadway, which is where the show began, and it retains a quirky, raw, uncompromising quality more characteristic of its origins than its destination. “Four years ago, Steven Boyer stepped up to the music stand with a sock on his hand,” at the Ensemble Studio Theater (as they put it recently.) Playwright Robert Askins was working as a bartender in Brooklyn then. He still is.
Hand to God is on stage at the Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street (between Broadway and 8th Avenue), New York NY 10036
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