Hand to God
222 W. 45th St.
When it played downtown in 2014, Hand to God drew rave reviews for Steven Boyer, who played a nice but troubled schoolboy seemingly possessed by a demon puppet. Boyer’s performance is just as virtuosic now in this Broadway transfer of Robert Askins’s play, which offers many comic
opportunities to its actors while also making steep physical demands on them.
Very loud Christian rock plays before the curtain, preparing us for the deep Texas milieu of Hand to God, which mainly takes place in a Sunday school recreation room. Margery (Geneva Carr) has recently been widowed, and she is dealing with her grief by trying to corral her son Jason (Boyer) and two other students into putting together a religion-themed puppet show. But foul mouths and foul tempers hold sway from the beginning here, as Jason quietly lusts for deadpan cutie Jessica (Sarah Stiles) and deals with his anger and jealousy toward Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), a very dim bulb who is crudely lusting after Margery. The lonely Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) is also lusting after Margery in a far more respectable and overbearingly nice way, and her rejection of his marriage proposal sets lots of bad things in motion.
Hand to God seems rather meager until the scene where Margery gives in to her animal urges and trashes the Sunday school rec room with Timothy’s help; this is the sort of steadily building, audience-pleasing physical comedy set piece that tempts actors to really go for broke, and Carr and Oberholtzer definitely oblige, smacking each other around and indulging in a push-and-pull sexual battle that seems guaranteed to leave most audiences in stitches. The comic violence intensifies when Jason’s puppet id Tyrone bites part of Timothy’s ear off and takes over the rec room, scrawling satanic graffiti all over the walls.
In the second act, there’s an even bigger physical comedy binge involving Carr, Oberholtzer and Kudisch’s Pastor when Margery and Timothy cannot resist the urge to have rough sex in the pastor’s office, and at this point whatever shaky statement the play seems to be trying to make about animal or evil urges dissolves entirely into a spectacle set up solely for audience laughter. Doing this play eight shows a week must take a real physical toll on the performers, however careful they try to be with all the stage combat.
The strenuous laugh-grabbing eventually descends to the level of elaborately dirty puppet sex between Tyrone and a lady puppet engineered by Stiles’s Jessica (just imagine every sexual thing a male and female puppet can do to each other and you’ll get an idea of what happens here). Hand to God is bookended by monologues from evil puppet Tyrone where he talks to us about religion and Satan and human beginnings, but this is just window-dressing for all the slapstick buffoonery. This slapstick, and some of the puppet interplay, is sometimes very funny, but it would be far funnier if it were grounded in more three-dimensional characters and actions.