One of the recurring tropes of horror fiction — the ventriloquist’s dummy that develops a mind of its own — gets a novel twist in “Hand to God,” Robert Askins’ Tony-nominated black comedy now playing at the Unicorn Theatre.
Think “Sordid Lives” meets “The Exorcist.”
In a church basement somewhere in Texas, three teens are preparing a Christian-themed entertainment featuring sock puppets.
The emotionally numbed Jason (Bob Linebarger) is dealing with the recent death of his father. He’s quiet and shy and slow to assert himself. He wouldn’t be here at all if not for his recently widowed mom, Margery (Heidi Van), who has volunteered to oversee the puppet ministry in a last-ditch attempt at self-realization.
Jason silently adores classmate Jessica (Mariem Diaz), who dresses in what passes for goth fashion in small-town Texas.
Then there’s the eagerly priapic Timmy (Matthew J. Lindblom), a flexing hunk of lust whose rude behavior is just his way of compensating for his desperate desire for the MILF-ish Margery.
As it turns out, Margery has two inappropriate suitors, the other being infuriatingly upbeat Pastor Greg (Marc Liby), who hopes his bottomless well of pious bromides will sweep her off her feet.
And then there’s the real star of the show, Tyrone, the sock puppet that almost never leaves Jason’s right hand. Tyrone is angry, sly, insulting, blasphemous and brutally honest. With his booming growl, he intimidates, threatens, cajoles and coerces.
He is, of course, everything poor Jason is not — or at least those parts of his psyche Jason is unwilling to recognize. And now that he’s firmly seated on Jason’s hand, Tyrone is determined never to leave.
The success of any production of “Hand to God” rests on the actor playing Jason/Tyrone. And Linebarger delivers a schizophrenic performance that is jaw-droppingly complex and screamingly funny.
On a half-dozen occasions in this script Jason and Tyrone carry on combative conversations. Linebarger must speak the lines of both characters. And yet his handling of Tyrone is so deft and convincing (local puppet master Paul Mesner is credited for “puppet direction”) that Tyrone emerges as a completely independent personality.
Sometimes, the exchanges of dialogue are so fast audience members run the risk of whiplash in following it. Remember Señor Wences on “The Ed Sullivan Show”? (“S’alright?” “S’alright!”). Well, this is Señor Wences on crack.
And it’s not just verbal pyrotechnics. Linebarger’s physical handling of Tyrone (whose two arms are manipulated with metal rods) makes the puppet a real physical presence, capable of delightful and alarming gestures.
But then the show is packed with amazing physical comedy. Lindblom’s Timmy, for instance, is a pulsating knot of adolescent horniness. He’s matched by Van’s desperately needy and loose kneed Margery.
In highlight of the second act, Tyrone is seduced by Jolene, a sexy girl puppet manipulated by Jessica in an attempt to rescue Jason. In a scene of inspired lunacy, Jessica and Jason talk to each other while their puppet-encased hands flail around on a table in a delightfully rude display of sexual acrobatics.
Under Cynthia Levin’s direction, this production comes off like a live-action cartoon, but that over-the-top approach masks some serious material about desperation, unrealized ambitions and the smothering aspects of small-town life.
Moreover, Askins’ script is furiously, scathingly critical of religion. The thin-skinned should steer clear.
Everyone else should gird their loins for the rudest, funniest show in town.
Read of Robert W. Butler’s film coverage at ButlersCinemaScene.com.