Theater Review: Hypocrites and a Vicious Sock Puppet in Hand to God

Hand to GodMCC at the LucilleLortel TheaterWritten by Robert AskinsDirected by Moritz von StuelpnagelCast Steven Boyer Geneva CarrMarc Kudisch Alex Mandell Michael Oberholtzer Sarah Stiles Photo: Joan Marcus

For centuries, theatrical antiheroes have vied for attention by going to extremes, but Tyrone, in Robert Askins’s Hand to God, may be the first, onstage at least, to bite off an ear. He’s as violent and vengeful as Sweeney Todd, and, despite his evangelical upbringing, as comically foul-mouthed as any Mamet mook. (His voice combines the appetitive rumble of Cookie Monster with the sexual bravado of James Brown.) You can’t just write him off as psychotic, though, because that would suggest a framework of sanity from which he has departed. He is, rather, pure, untrammelled id, eternally evil and born that way, and thus psychologically unique in dramatic literature. Unique physically too. He has big, vacant eyes, limbs like linguini, a shock of maraschino hair — and, oh, some guy’s arm up his back.

Yes, he’s a sock puppet, and also, in what may be the apotheosis of color-blind casting, the gray-skinned star of Broadway’s unlikeliest new must-see play. I say “unlikeliest” in part because it’s the kind of intelligent, blood-dark comedy — disturbing as often as it is funny, vile as often as it is violent, and, to my mind, better for both — that would seem more at home in a small, subsidized venue patronized by locals. (Indeed, its road to the Booth began, in 2012, at the 99-seat Ensemble Studio Theatre, and seemed to reach its natural level in last year’s MCC Theater production at the 249-seat Lucille Lortel.) But Hand to God is also unlikely on its own terms, wherever it might run. For Tyrone is not just the alter ego of a troubled teen named Jason but a self-appointed spokesdemon for all humanity. We learn this right off, when he delivers, as a prologue, a potted history of morality, a blight that began when “some asshole” invented right and wrong. If this is civilization, he is its discontent.

That prologue is a bit of a conundrum, because Jason, who made and presumably controls Tyrone, isn’t introduced until later. And he’s the one with actual problems. His father has recently eaten himself to death. His overwound mother, Margery, doesn’t want to discuss it. Rather, at the suggestion of glad-hand pastor Greg, she has been trying to channel her mourning toward good by spearheading a Christian puppet ministry. It is not going well. Aside from Jason, who is too cowed and repressed to disobey his mother, only two kids show up for meetings in the cinder-block basement community room of their Cypress, Texas, church, amid craft supplies and cheerful Jesus posters. One is Timothy, a classic ne’er-do-well with the hots for Margery, and the other is Jessica, a sarcastic sophisticate on whom Jason has a crush. (Her puppet is a nymphet named Jolene.) This is a setup for all kinds of mortification — romantic, religious, and Oedipal — and when Jason can no longer reconcile the external pressure of obedience with the internal pressure of actual feeling, Tyrone explodes out of his arm to do it for him.

Hypocrisy is of course the target: Tyrone expresses Jason’s awareness that almost everyone around him is acting freely on urges he has been taught to suppress. (Even Pastor Greg, the kind of guy who, when upset, shouts “son of a biscuit,” is putting the moves on mom.) The more of this hypocrisy Jason sees, the more powerful and violent Tyrone grows: He becomes swollen, as a stage direction notes, “with the detritus of a Christian childhood.” The wording is telling. Askins, himself once a member of a Christian puppet ministry in Cypress, is not making a generic comment about human nature but zeroing in on religion. Nor, with all those Jesus posters, some of which are satanically altered by the end, do we have to wonder which one. It’s somewhat shocking as a Broadway gambit (there are mock crucifixions involved) but, admirably, Askins sticks to his guns. What begins with Tyrone’s brilliant précis of the Bible (“Abraham begat Isaac. Isaac begat Dorkus [sic]. Dorkus begat Gibberish. Gibberish begat Balderdash”) ends with a devastating summation of all Christianity as little more than “that puppet show.”

The line also suggests a justification for the play’s method. Askins, like Jason, is saying through a puppet something he might not be able to say — surely not on Broadway — without one. (The comedy helps, too.) It’s also a nice irony that while Jason needs an external character to express his urges, his tormentors do not. Margery and Timothy and even Pastor Greg try to do whatever their libidos urge. They don’t need puppets; they are puppets. Even so, the metaphor is not entirely coherent. The play clearly argues that repression is destructive, but Tyrone is destructive, too. So which is it? Askins’s halfhearted resolution to this contradiction is provided in the mercifully short “lesson” portion of the play, in which a middle ground is suggested and a tentative reconciliation attempted. Happily, these do not entirely erase the uncomfortable questions Tyrone’s “existence” has raised. Is there, in fact, a Tyrone separate from Jason? Which is to say: Is evil ambient or innate? And: Are we what we do or what we think?

To judge from the roaring of the audience the night I saw it, Hand to God is successfully disguising its larger concerns under the cloak of dirty puppet talk. (“Well, pardon my French, asshole,” Tyrone says, “but Margery fucked li’l Tim-Tim.”) I found this aspect of the play a bit belabored, and grew tired of Tyrone’s outrageousness well before the playwright did. (For the same reason, I find the prologue and the epilogue superfluous.) But as the dark comedy more nearly approaches its darkness in Act Two, with the consequences of human outrageousness brought to the foreground, the tale becomes more emotionally legible, and at times even heartbreaking. It’s a credit to the director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, and the performers, especially Geneva Carr as Margery and Marc Kudisch as Pastor Greg, that this shift is accomplished without the accompanying sound of grinding gears. They have built into their work from the beginning the truth of the play’s ending, which is that we are all lost and religion is no help.

I don’t mean to slight Sarah Stiles and Michael Oberholtzer in the less-dimensional supporting roles of Jessica and Timothy; both are hilarious. Nor especially do I mean to slight Steven Boyer, whose role is almost too dimensional for its own good. Although he tosses off with admirable ease the daunting challenge of playing both Jason and Jason-as-Tyrone, often in furious conversation with one another, there is something unsatisfying in the role’s construction that he cannot quite overcome. Usually an actor must integrate the various strands of information suggested by the play’s conflicts in order to create a coherent character. Here, the character is created by segregation: All the showy, aggressive traits get put into Tyrone, all the sadness and delicacy into Jason. As a result, the more Boyer succeeds, the less either half of his success resonates. And if the play suffers to some degree from a similar dissipation of its energies, there is plenty of energy left to make it irresistible. Indeed, its defects (there’s also a big plot thread left hanging) may operate as a form of camouflage, allowing it to thrive in a hostile environment. How else to argue against God in precincts generally inimical to questions of faith that do not involve sequins?

Hand to God is at the Booth Theatre.

*A version of this article appears in the April 20, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Theater Review: Hand to God