When one thinks of furry-clothed characters crafted carefully (or not so carefully) with string and stationary eyeballs, it’s hard to disregard the images that first come to mind. From the Tony Award Winning Avenue Q (or was Wicked better?) to the recent reincarnation of The Muppets, the American public and confused tourists alike all have their preconceptions of what a puppet show or a show might be, especially if it’s “Broadway”.
Hand to God definitely defies those preconceptions, and I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing yet. It’s one of those dark comedies that makes you think a while after viewing, which is the basis of all great art. People often confuse liking something or agreeing with it as a determination of its worth. “It bothered me” is not a negative review of a play; that was probably the intention of the playwright: to disturb or bother or challenge. Why are we so afraid of being disturbed in art? We need to begin determining the intrinsic value of art based upon whether it was effective or not.
The play certainly is effective and lives up to its “dark comedy” label while taking on a long list of taboo topics (religion, mental illness). I’m not one for spoilers, but all you need to know about it is that it’s bad in (mostly) all the right ways. With the exception of the ending, which was strangely facetious, it was an unapologetic ride which made me laugh, often. Many things stand out: the chemistry between actors, the authenticity of the set (I attended similar Sunday School classrooms).
Some actors get tired with their parts after a long run and it’s clear in their eyes that they are planning dinner, but the cast remained present throughout. This show was certainly demanding physically; the level of puppetry it expected from two of the leads, the awkward sexual encounters each character confronts (sometimes involving puppets…), and that can be a recipe for disaster if mishandled or misdirected.
But Von Stuelpnage directs with a fluidity that enhances the comedy instead of stifling it. Michael Oberholtzer geniusly dumb as Timmy, characterized the “lost asshole” in a way I haven’t yet seen. That may be more to the credit of the writer, Robert Askins, but he had to physicalize those dumb-liners and did with gusto. Geneva Carr, as Margery, was emotionally vulnerable and physically effective (despite her unidentifiable “southern” accent). Marc Kudisch, looking extremely fit in a role I thought would be another “southern preacher/sleezebag”, brought a subtlety to Pastor Greg with his smile and heart breaking confusion as a pastor too ill-prepared to deal with the trials at hand.
And Steven Boyer epitomized commitment to a lead performance at a level that is increasingly more rare. He delivers a physicality that changed on a dime between his troubled teen Jason and the racy embodiment of Tyrone, his demonized hand puppet. A physical performance like that can often go overlooked or applauded only for theatricality and not fully appreciated for its genuine prowess, but Boyer clearly understands this kid, with a comfort and energy I haven’t seen in any actor in another play this season. You see it in the way his eyes change from Jason to Tyrone. As Jason, he is an unstable kid dealing with the physical loss of his father and the emotional distance of his mother and he takes out his frustrations through the device of the crazed Tyrone, who allows him to unleash his “bad feelings”.
Nevermind that Boyer looks late 20s at his youngest, it works because he commits without apologizing. I can’t say that about many actors in many plays. This is a tour de performance to rival all others (I smell Tony buzz).
Shout out to Sarah Stiles, too, who brings to the friendly Jessica an understanding comfort to Jason’s misunderstood behavior. But the reason this play has stood out in a usually stale Broadway is that I didn’t know what journey I was about to embark upon, and that is a rarity. Sure, “kid has a possesed hand” brings all kinds of people to the theater, but more than that, Hand to God is a new comedy that provoked laughter with thought.
What a concept!