As summer fare this highly imaginative black comedy by Robert Askins is not what you’d expect. No Butterflies are Free, no Barefoot in the Park romantic romp is this play that features a grieving mother, a pastor with a yen for her, and three young people who are on the madness track. Set in a small town church basement in very rural Texas, Askins takes us on a journey into little known territory and with the aid of a first rate cast, helps us to understand and relish his little band of broken very human beings.
Margery is helping a group of volunteers to prepare a Christian puppet show, egged on by the pastor who wants it ready within a week. Her son Jason has made himself a hand puppet he’s named “Tyrone,” and he’s joined by Timothy, who’s been thrust into the group by a mother who’s a drunk and is off somewhere at rehab. A final participant is Jessica who really prefers other forms of puppetry, but hey it’s something to do in a town in which her other option would be to stay home and watch the grass grow. Tyrone, who’s firmly attached to Jason’s left hand and arm, is Jason’s Mr. Hyde, and he is a corker, irrepressible and vicious whenever he spots anyone being evasive in answering a tough question. Clearly he’s everything Jason wants to keep repressed, and he leads him into confrontations that are both hilarious and terrifying. We go along for a bumpy ride that is constantly surprising and entertaining.
The play has been beautifully realized by Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel and by a cast that’s had the advantage of a series of workshops and an off-Broadway run. Jason and Tyrone are embodied by the incredible Steven Boyer; it’s my introduction to his work, though he’s been around a while. His Jason is sullen, introverted, amenable, needy and appealing. His puppet Tyrone is volatile, filled with rage and contempt, uninhibited and dangerous. Mr. Boyer manages to be both characters occasionally at the same time, and his achievement is triumphant. A recent Tony nominee for best actor in a play, one can only hope his future will give him opportunity, for it will be interesting to watch this resourceful actor grow.
Geneva Carr is his mother Margery, a recent widow who is trying desperately to go on without the support of a husband she loved. She’s a good woman, but she’s in pain, and sometimes she fails her son in ways she doesn’t always understand. When she disappoints even herself, her face briefly contorts and conveys all her frustrations. It’s a vivid characterization. Jessica and Timothy are equally dimensional people, and Sarah Stiles and Michael Oberholtzer are both arresting. Oberholtzer’s disdain for the group he’s stuck in, his keen interest in Margery that is highly personal — both are crystal clear. And Stiles’ awkward relationship with Jason is acted out with a smile here, a giggle there, and much rich and inventive acting in between.
The veteran Marc Kudisch’s approach to the Pastor who’s trying to guide his flock is at first surprising, in that he’s the seemingly least eccentric character and at first I felt he was sort of in the wrong play. But as his own conflicts and yearnings were revealed, as his loneliness became apparent, I agreed he’d made the right choice in approaching the role, and was well-directed.
Hand to God can be enjoyed for its sprightly dialogue and its occasionally explosive story line, but it’s also one play that you’ll find yourself discussing on your way home, and thinking about for some time after that. Rich, rewarding, and living proof that the times were, and are, and likely will always be a changin’.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, including one intermission.
Hand to God is playing at The Booth Theatre – 222 West 45th Street, in New York City. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or (800) 447-7400, buy them at the box office, or purchase them online.