There’s nothing new about puppets with attitude.
But the hand-and-rod puppet that dwells at the center of the Tony-nominated “Hand to God,” a unique satire by Robert Askins, is something special: a trash-talking, venom-spitting creation that somehow conjures images of Kermit on meth. The satanically possessed Tyrone also happens to be something of a poet-philosopher, reflecting on the human animal’s need to invent gods and devils in provocative monologues that open and close the show.
Fact: This comedy, which was an off-Broadway hit last year, is unlike anything I’ve seen. Second fact: That doesn’t mean the play should be seen as a successful work of art.
Askins saturates what might have worked better as a one-act play with post-modern deadpan irony while occasionally veering into wild, manic episodes of a sort we’ve rarely seen on the Broadway stage.
Something in Askins’ approach brings to mind Anglo-Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, whose strenuous effort to break from conventional storytelling often distracted viewers from the comparative shallowness of the plays.
Askins, a Texas native who began building a career as a playwright after moving to New York in 2005, isn’t much of a language stylist, but, like McDonagh, he takes cliches and stock characters and reconstitutes them in a way that seems audacious and surprising.
The personae of “Hand to God” include a lonely, lecherous preacher; a churchgoing widow with an inner animal desperate to be released; a nerdy teen who can express himself only though the ridiculous alter-ego of Tyrone; a sexually aggressive high-schooler with a thing for the puppet teacher and a quiet but perceptive teenage girl who becomes an unlikely heroic figure.
These are characters we’ve seen versions of before, but Askins uses them in creative, unpredictable ways and is largely successful in what seems to be a conscious effort to constantly surprise the viewer. The result is a clever construct that tries hard to be “outrageous” and whose characters are viewed from a chilly distance.
Steven Boyer clearly deserves his Tony nomination as Jason, the teenager whose puppet creation, Tyrone, assumes a life of its own. Boyer’s performance often consists of dialogue between Jason and Tyrone, which allows him to play two very distinct characters simultaneously. The performance is a tour-de-force.
Geneva Carr, also nominated, plays Margery, the sad, quietly frenzied woman who convenes the puppet class in the church basement. She is Jason’s mom and a grieving widow, whose husband died six months earlier after over-eating himself to a heart attack.
Two other teen puppeteers are the surly Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), who lusts for Margery, and Jessica (Sarah Stiles, the show’s third nominee), a quiet girl who appears to take everything, no matter how bizarre, in stride.
The fifth important presence in the show is Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), a hapless minister who courts Margery in his own clueless way and eventually has to research exorcism rites after Jason/Tyrone barricades himself in the church basement.
“Hand to God” will inevitably bring to mind “Avenue Q” — there’s even a puppet sex scene — but that show, a musical, was an artistic success, a collaboration between a collective of artists who hit on the disaffection of Generation X-ers as its central theme.
Askins’ theme is at once simpler and more complex. His message about the inborn capacity to do good or evil in each of us makes the play worthwhile, but director Moritz von Stuelpnagel is less interested in the play’s philosophical content than its potential for elaborate set pieces.
Ultimately the show is about physical comedy. The actors perform at an extremely high level, but I found myself wishing for less mayhem and more reflection.
Trussell on Broadway
▪ Our intrepid theater critic, Robert Trussell, is reviewing several of the Tony nominees in New York. In addition to “Hand to God,” look for his reviews of Tony-nominated shows “The King & I,” “An American in Paris,” “Airline Highway” and “The Visit” on the entertainment page of KansasCity.com. The Tony Awards are June 7 and will air live on CBS.
▪ “Hand to God” has been nominated for five Tony Awards. The show is running at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St., New York. For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400. For more information, go to HandToGodBroadway.com.