REVIEW: Hand To God, Booth Theatre ✭✭✭✭✭

Steven Boyer and Sarah Stiles In Hand To God.
Steven Boyer and Sarah Stiles In Hand To God. Photo: Joan Marcus

Hand To God
The Booth Theatre
4 April 2015

“You are so far in the back of the closet, you are in Narnia!”

So taunts the nerdy but firm-bodied Jessica. Her victim/enemy is the ludicrously tall, casually sexy, Uber jock, Timothy, who is sprawled, thighs akimbo, in a chair in a Church hall where puppetry classes are being conducted by Margery, Mother to Uber nerd, Jason. Inevitably, Timothy is outraged. Jessica knows he will be, which is why she taunts him. Margery tries to restore order, sends Jessica and Jason out for cokes and a break. She intends to give Timothy a good piece of her mind, properly sort him out.

But that is not what happens…

This is Hand To God, a new American play, now previewing at the Booth Theatre on Broadway. Written by Robert Askins and directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, Hand To God plays like an obsidian black farce which turns on those stock elements of farce – violence, sex and religion. The extremity of those elements and their use here is what differentiates this from a run of the mill farce.

And the fact that, once you have wiped away the tears of laughter, unlike most farces, images and concepts remain with you. It is really only then that you realise that Askins has used the device of the farce to say quite a few remarkably insightful things. It may look like a farce, play like a farce, be funny like a farce, but it is a state-of-society satire with real bite in more than one of its tales.

The surface narrative concerns the misadventures of the Church puppetry group. Margery’s husband, Jason’s father, has been dead for six months and neither of them are coping. Nor are they talking about how they feel. They both take refuge in the puppetry classes. Also there are Jessica, a normal girl, not conventionally beautiful but smart and lovely, and Timothy, a huge Grid Iron type with loads of issues, a seriously troubled lad.BOOK TICKETS TO HAND TO GOD

Timothy picks on Jason and Jessica to cover up his own insecurities and, probably, loneliness. He clearly needs to be properly loved and cared for. He develops an unhealthy fixation for Margery. Another with an unhealthy fixation for Margery is Pastor Greg, the priest who runs the church. Difficult personal interactions course through the narrative just as blood pumps through the heart.

Then, Jason finds that his puppet, Tyrone, has a life of its own. After he has torn his puppet apart in an uncharacteristic, violent fit of aggression and rebellion, while he is asleep, in his bed, the puppet, mysteriously risen from the wooly death of fabric rage, starts speaking to him, independently, as an entity in its own right. There have been flashes of this previously, odd, inexplicable instances, but now Tyrone seems entirely manifested as evil alter ego for Jason, his unrestrained, foul-mouthed, anti-social Id if you like. The Devil possessing him?

Perhaps.

There follows much puppet rage. Tyrone says what he likes, whatever the consequences, and takes action which all but destroys the other characters. There is some Reservoir Dogs type violence propelled by this Machiavellian hand puppet. Is Tyrone merely acting as the mouthpiece for Jason’s unspoken inner angst and vehemence? Or is he an agent of the Prince of Darkness come to recruit Jason to his hordes? Is, as Pastor Greg believes, an exorcism in order?

While these are interesting questions, and obvious ones raised by the text, there seem to be other, more interesting things to ponder.

The tale of the puppetry class shenanigans is topped and tailed by Punch And Judy-esque vignettes featuring Tyrone expounding about how society, civilisation and religion have destroyed the innocent freedoms of mankind. Tyrone’s theory is that creating rules for good behaviour stifles freedom and spontaneity and produces conflict and disharmony and discontent. If there was no civilisation, no religion, there would be no need for the devil; that once you have the devil as a societal concept it is all too easy to say “The Devil Made Me Do It”.

The farce plays out and explores those themes. The society of the church is broken down by the antics of Tyrone in full untrammelled-by-consequence mode. Tyrone stands up to the bully (albeit violently), tells the truth (or perhaps what Jason perceives is the truth) regardless of the hurt or devastating aftermath and calls people out on their inappropriate behaviour. In short, Tyrone does that which can only be done if there are no “rules” or “conventions” or taboo topics.

The really interesting thing is that while there may be pain caused by Tyrone’s explosive interventions, the world does not end, people might be scarred or embarrassed but they are not as dead as Jason’s father – and they are free to face the truth of their lives. Shattering the conventional wisdom of how to behave, Tyrone sets each character free, for at least as long as they choose to be free.

Looked at another way, Tyrone is a metaphor for the modern phenomenon of online avatars. He is part of Jason (Let’s face it, he sits on Jason’s hand) but his behaviour and actions are entirely separate from Jason – eventually everyone, including Jason, sees Tyrone as a separate entity. Just as people see their online personas as separate and permit them to do and say things which the real person would never do or say in person.

There is a key scene where Tyrone and Jessica’s puppets have outrageously funny sex. Virtual sex essentially. It plays out in front of Jason and Jessica, it involves them, but they are disconnected from it too. It is hilarious to watch, but at the same time it encapsulates the author’s feelings about a society where people constantly have sex for the act itself, not for any emotional connection. Watching those puppets go at it hammer and tong is just the same as watching pornography – it has exactly the same relationship to intimacy. None.

By setting the play in the confines of a church sanctioned environment, the extremity of the violence and anti-social behaviour is increased, but the play is not a specific attack on religion. Religion is just one of the societal norms that are the targets here.

Authority as a concept is the biggest focus. Margery is an ineffective mother for Jason as she has not coped with the death of her husband or the reasons for it. Pastor Greg is an ineffective paternal figure because he puts his self-interest before others and only acts responsibly when that course is the unavoidable one. The kids are all dysfunctional in different ways, a product of a dysfunctional society. Jessica turns out to be the wisest of all, because she uses her mind and is as unafraid of honesty as she is of playing along to secure a resolution.

The play is slightly too long and probably would work far more effectively if it was played without an intermission. Once Tyrone gets going, you don’t want the momentum to halt. Askins writes cruelly funny dialogue and the ludicrous situations that develop are undeniably hilarious. But his greatest skill lies in perception – this is a very serious work wrapped up in the glossy laughter of farce. It’s very compelling writing.

Von Stuelpnagel directs with clarity and toxic verve. The cutting satire is well served by vigorous performances and ingenious design. Beowulf Boritt’s set design is a triumph; the way he captures the Church classroom feel of the room where the puppetry classes are held is remarkable – you can almost smell the chalk dust and that particular odour of dusty, fusty mediocrity. When Tyrone transforms it into a blood-splattered, carnage caressed obscenity shrine, the detail is superb and endlessly entertaining.

Steven Boyer is simply sensational as Jason and even more so as Tyrone. His ability to play both characters simultaneously, his body in full Jason mode, his hand in full Tyrone mode, is exceptional. His vocal agility and acuity is astonishing. The expression he injects into the lower register fuelled demonic tones of Tyrone is extraordinary. It is almost trite to say, but nevertheless true, that Tyrone seems three-dimensional, a separate complete being, nothing to do with Jason.

Yet, at the same time, the gifted Boyer makes it clear that Jason could be Tyrone, the possibility is always within range. The puppet sex scene with Sarah Stiles’ puppet is comic acting of the highest kind, from both performers. Boyer is also adept at playing his mother’s son, there is never a sense that they are not related. As both characters, Boyer is impeccable in every way.

Stiles matches him as the thoughtful, resourceful but marginalised Jessica. She lands every joke and makes the absolute most of every scene in which she appears. Her exchanges with Timothy are viciously apt. She personifies non-conformity in a triumphant way.

Making his Broadway debut, Michael Oberholtzer is a star in the making. Extremely tall, brooding, and very handsome, he has that focus drawing onstage charm which is almost overwhelming in its intensity. He puts it to good work here as the incredibly dim, but obviously damaged, Timothy, a character who says and does things to get the attention he craves but is too stupid to realise the damage he causes to others in the pursuit of his own misconceived ends.

Playing the sex obsessed hunk comes easily to Oberholtzer but this is no pretty boy call for Hollywood attention, despite the Tshirt ripping and the tight white underwear displays. His performance is masterful, layered and carefully nuanced. We might laugh at Timothy, even despise him occasionally, but we can also see how wretched and desperate he is. None of that is especially clear from the writing; Oberholtzer unleashes it through sheer skill, especially in his exchanges with Margery and Pastor Greg.

Geneva Carr plays Margery tightly wound, like barbed wire twisted into an unnatural shape, ready to spring back and take chunks of your flesh away. Brittle, surface composed, struggling to hold onto normal routines and to find a way to cope, Carr’s Margery is the composite middle-aged woman let down by a man, seduced by another one, and misjudged by yet another. It’s a finely unhinged performance, both funny and tragic. Other actresses might have been tempted to make Margery more caustic, more sexually charged, more animalistic, but Carr walks precisely the right line, keeping all those options simmering until she chooses to selectively feature them. It’s a beautifully judged performance.

Marc Kudish is too one-note as Pastor Greg. Surprisingly, especially for a veteran of 9 to 5, Kudish is not sufficiently skin crawlingly sleazy as the mostly ineffective and inwardly focussed priest. He is more than capable, but there is more to be fleshed out of the character, as the performances of the cast around him demonstrate.

Jason Lyons provides exceptionally good lighting which adds to the level of tension or jarring horror as Tyrone’s puppet apocalypse plays out. Full marks too to the genius design of the puppets from Marte Johanne Ekhoughen, and Robert Westley’s fight work is graphic and convincing.

This is a major new work, a satirical social commentary masquerading as a silly farce about a demonic puppet. The form Askins uses is pitch-perfect for the content he wants to explore.

If you want Avenue Q or Sooty, prepare to be shocked and cruelly disappointed. Otherwise, prepare for one of the best new American plays in many a Broadway season.

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