Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Shocking, Profane, and Just What Broadway Needs?

Review: Hand to God

Steven Boyer as Jason (l) and Tyrone (r), the stars of the provocative new play Hand to God.

There's been little on contemporary Broadway to prepare audiences for the pitch black comedy Hand to God, a provocative indictment of religion and faith currently drawing both hearty guffaws and shocked gasps at the Booth Theatre. Sure, Avenue Q tackled the "foul mouthed puppets" schtick first, but despite that Tony-winning musical's abundance of four letter words its characters lacked the viciousness and anger of Tyrone, the profanity prone sock puppet at this play's center. Written by Broadway newcomer Robert Askins, Hand to God is one of the most brazen, boundary pushing, and thoroughly unpredictable new works to grace the Great White Way in some time. These characteristics prove to be both assets and weaknesses during the show's lighting fast two hour runtime, and even if you don't agree with or even like the play, you certainly can't accuse Askins and company of playing it safe.

Set in the small town of Cypress, Texas (Askins' actual hometown), Hand to God introduces us to Jason, a shy and awkward young man who has been coerced by his mother Margery into joining her Christian Puppet Ministry. Puppet practice seems to be one of the few things that brings Jason anything resembling joy, as he struggles with his awkwardness around girls, the school bully, and a very complicated relationship with his recently widowed mother. Unfortunately for Jason, his hand puppet Tyrone seems to have taken on a mind of its own, providing withering critiques of everyone in Jason's life via hilariously caustic one liners. Soon it becomes clear that Tyrone has gotten out of hand (sorry, I had to), and by intermission it's already apparent there is no line Hand to God is unwilling to cross.

Once Askins' script gets going, there's no stopping it. Events quickly spiral beyond any semblance of control, making for a thrilling roller coaster ride of a play that will quickly take you from being doubled over in laughter to physically cringing at the thought of what might happen next. There is nothing pretentious or artificial about Askins' dialogue, which perfectly captures the play's small town milieu and lends the show's characters an authenticity without which the entire enterprise would crumble. (Praise be to vocal coach Ellen Lettrich for creating one of the most convincing southern drawls this Georgia transplant has ever heard on the New York stage.)

Askins makes a lot of smart observation about human behavior and how the concepts of good and evil function in our society. Unfortunately, he bites off a bit more than he can chew, particularly when it comes to Jason's mother. Margery enters into an incredibly violent sexual relationship that has the outward appearance of rape, except no one including Margery seems all too concerned about what that suggests. If this had been a one time occurrence it would still be troubling but perhaps understandable from a playwriting perspective; however, there are two separate and lengthy instances of this not-rape, the consequences of which are never adequately addressed. They seem included solely for shock value, which is particularly disheartening when contrasted with how Tyrone's discomforting tirades force you to re-examine your own assumptions in order to understand where the play is coming from.

On a less unsettling note, the play is incredibly well acted, especially the jaw-dropping fluidity with which Steven Boyer simultaneously portrays the meek Jason and strong willed Tyrone. Boyer's mastery of his own body is so complete and specific that Jason and Tyrone truly feel like separate entities. The contrast between Jason's hunched over, closed off body language and Tyrone's upright fury while railing against his host is mind boggling, and several of the play's best scenes take place entirely between Jason and Tyrone. Boyer's commitment to his dual roles and expert puppeteering mean you must constantly remind yourself that Tyrone is not a living, breathing being. The inventive ways Boyer has Tyrone interact with the environment and other characters are both a joy to watch and absolutely terrifying (at one point, Boyer finds a way to convincingly throw himself across the room by having Tyrone hoist Jason up by his shirt collar). Boyer's is the type of performance that will be talked about for years to come, and is reason enough to justify the price of a ticket.

Geneva Carr does very strong work as Margery and almost manages to make the aforementioned rape scenes work. She provides a very compelling and believable portrait of a basically good woman handling life's trials very poorly (there is no Mother of the Year award in Margery's future), and through it all her very real yet strained love of Jason provides the play with its emotional core. Marc Kudish is in fine form in the mostly reactionary role of Pastor Greg, and Michael Oberholtzer is perfectly cast as the town bully/troubled youth Timothy. And Sarah Stiles miraculously finds a new take on the "girl next door" archetype that feels both fresh and truthful.

Beowulf Boritt's set is perfection down to the smallest detail. Everything from the specific type of plastic chair to the cloying motivational posters on the wall to the specific shade of blue-gray paint haphazardly applied over brick and mortar screams small town church, and Boritt makes clever use of rotating walls to reveal the play's other mundane but no less evocative locales. As with most contemporary-set plays, Sydney Maresca's costumes and Jason Lyons' lights don't really get the chance to go beyond their most basic functions, but both designs are still well executed and serve the piece well. Everything is competently directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who smartly lets Askins' script and Boyers' performance do most of the heavy lifting.

Those who are easily offended or don't like to be challenged by their entertainment should stay far away from Hand to God, which pulls no punches over the course of its pulse-pounding two hours. But if you're willing to be challenged or just appreciate boundary-pushing new works, the show offers plenty of food for thought. Quite frankly, Broadway could stand more shows like Hand To God, which proudly wears its lack of name talent and American origin as a badge of honor in a market flooded with star-studded revivals and London imports. You may not agree with everything the show has to say, but it is a breath of fresh air to find a Broadway show with the ambition and confidence to make such statements to begin with.

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