In the Christian catechism, Christ is the ultimate puppet, a perfect instrument for the Divine Puppeteer to tell a revolutionary story for the ages. In the same vein, particularly weak mortals are often described as puppets for occult forces of evil. In Robert Askins's play Hand to God, it's hard to tell where the sock puppet Tyrone falls on the spectrum off good and evil. Yes, Tyrone possesses a teenage boy with a force to rival Ash's possessed hand in Evil Dead II. On the other hand (sorry), Tyrone talks a lot of sense and becomes a powerful catalyst for personal growth! All I can say for sure is that Tyrone is pretty damn funny for a sock puppet.
Most of Hand to God takes place in a dreary cinder block church basement familiar to anyone forced to suffer through CCD indoctrination classes as a child. Askins is a Texas native who set his strange story in Cypress, the town where he grew up, but the play doesn't feel particularly southern to me, and it's not even so much a religious story as it is a dark comedy about compartmentalizing trauma. The stellar Steven Boyer plays Jason, a teenager whose father died of a heart attack brought on by morbid obesity. As a coping mechanism, his barely-keeping-it-together mother Margery (Geneva Carr) has thrown herself into directing a tiny handful of troubled teens in a Christian puppet show, and Jason is her unwilling star.
The puppet production, however humble its scope, never even comes close to realization, thanks to Jason/Tyrone. At the risk of spoiling too much, Jason's handmade sock puppet mysteriously takes on a life of his own, asserting a rogue identity far beyond Jason's control. It's clear from the get-go that the shy and introspective Jason has an abnormal attachment to the puppet, which he rarely removes. The first whiff of real trouble comes when Tyrone foils a potentially romantic encounter at the swing-set with winsome fellow puppeteer Jessica (played adorkably by Sarah Stiles), interrupting their flirtation like a ribald wingman (or sweet Jason's unsuppressed id).
Tyrone's ascendance so alarms Jason that during the car ride home he begs Margery to let him quit the church puppet show. But in Hand to God's first hint that an earnest pain underscores the absurdity, Margery refuses, and after a nasty fight she ultimately forces Jason to walk home alone. In the midst of all this, Jason tears Tyrone's head off. This, we soon learn, is not nearly enough to stop Tyrone.
As if her husband's death and her son's possessed puppet aren't enough, Margery has Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) and the sexually precocious teen bad boy Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) both angling to get in her pants, in their own distinctly awful ways. Both, on some level, sense she's hanging by a thread, and do their best to grab the string. Two very uncomfortable yet funny first act scenes result from this odd love triangle, and the sum total fuels the madness that ensues when Tyrone sews his own head back on and seizes control of Jason's inhibited ego. Don't worry, I haven't even spoiled the half of it.
Two thirds of Hand to God is deliriously madcap comedy, deriving is dramatic momentum from a foundation of raw, sentimental heartache that comprises the other third. Askins proves himself a master of bathos here, and he's well-served by an adept cast under the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Boyer, whom you may recall as a young pharmacist in Louie or from the play The Ugly One, is especially intriguing—all glowering imprisonment as Jason but wild mania as the voice of Tyrone, who will not allow the pathetic person attached to his hand to be treated like a doormat any longer.
At turns hilarious and disturbing, Hand to God tells a relatable story of family trauma through a zany, entertaining prism. There are a couple of scenes that drag—a too-long first act courtship scene between Pastor Greg and Margery could be tightened—but Tyrone's charisma makes up for the soft spots. The ending spirals out of control into a paroxysm of brutal violence that I didn't see coming—nor did I ever expect to see such erotic X-rated puppet sex performed live. But equally surprising is the story's sincere emotional payoff, which wouldn't have been possible without one rude sock puppet's outlandish antics. The Master Puppeteer works in mysterious ways.
Hand to Godcontinues at the Lucille Lortel Theater in the West Village through March 30th.