Hand to God — The Little Show (and Evil Puppet) That Could

Opening Night   Hand to God — The Little Show (and Evil Puppet) That Could
 
Take a look at the Broadway bow of Robert Askins' dark puppet comedy Hand to God — an opening long in the making that seemed implausible to many.
Marc Kudisch, Geneva Carr, Steven Boyer, Sarah Stiles and Michael Oberholtzer
Marc Kudisch, Geneva Carr, Steven Boyer, Sarah Stiles and Michael Oberholtzer Photo by Monica Simoes

"'The bad boy of Baylor U' — on Broadway! Can you believe it?" I asked Robert Askins April 7 as he walked into the Booth Theatre for the Main Stem bow of Hand to God.

The emerging American playwright (and, meanwhile, Brooklyn bartender) could not: "They kept saying it was going to happen, then a billboard appeared, then we began coming to this theatre, then audiences began showing up, then people began laughing. This is a sacred place, a perfect playhouse, the first place I saw a show."

Although he claims to be a latent Lutheran, his certifiably weird, gospel-scorching comedy gleefully plays like the antiestablishment rantings of a Southern Baptist who has gone deeply and irretrievable South into the devil's handiwork. His central character, Jason, is a Texas high-schooler, who, grieving over his father's sudden death, takes up church puppetry to act out Bible stories for the easily led. Enter Tyrone, with a vengeance — on his left hand — a profoundly profane sock puppet bent on taking over the rest of his body, filling it with dirty words, ideas and deeds.

In a dazzling display of creative schizophrenia, Steven Boyer steadfastly underplays Jason while taking Tyrone full-throttle over the top and beyond. It's an awesome performance that has carried this piece from Off-Off-Broadway (Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011) to Off-Broadway (Manhattan Class Company in 2014) to this perch of Tony eligibility where it may do some serious damage to Brits paused to pounce.

"In some ways, Jason and Tyrone are a vaudeville act," explained Boyer. "They point at that when they do Abbott and Costello's 'Who's on First?' Jason is the straight man, and Tyrone gets the good jokes. It satisfies a part of me as an actor who wants to do serious, emotional roles and the part of me that just wants to get the laugh."

Moritz von Stupelpnagel, who helmed this merry mayhem (and quite expertly), was another unbeliever shocked to see where his art had taken him. "It is unbelievable to come from Off-Off-Broadway to here," he admitted. "I think the first time we met, you said, 'Where the hell did you come from?' We came from just pounding the pavement, and here we are. To be able to work on this play so long, to be able to work with this group of people who I respect as artists and as human beings, to all of us having a chance to invest so much of ourselves collectively into this play and keep each other honest and keep the integrity of the play is unbelievable."

There have been tweaks, fine-tunings and major script changes every step of the way, and the director thanked lead producer Kevin McCollum "for the freedom to allow the show to grow in that way." McCollum is the man who unleashed sexually active puppets on Broadway via Avenue Q's Kate Monster and Princeton. Stacie Bono and Seth Rettberg, who are still practicing that mislaid art in the Off-Broadway edition of Avenue Q, were in attendance, as were the original, Tony-nominated Kate Monster and Princeton, Stephanie d'Abruzzo and John Tartaglia. Both were seeing the show as virgins and left a bit saucer-eyed at the sexual bases that were covered.

"What we had in Avenue Q was subdued, sweet sex by comparison," exclaimed Taartaglia. "This was like 'Omigod!' It really raises the level of puppet sex."

Boyer also set the bar for puppet acting, he added. "Knowing the difficulties of puppetry and how well he overcame them, I was just blown away by him. The hardest thing is to convince people that the sock puppet is real, and to have to go back and forth like that is incredibly difficult, but he handled it beautifully."

Sarah Stiles, who was trained in Muppet puppetry for Avenue Q and adapted to sock puppetry for Hand to God, is girlfriend of both Jason and Tyrone and gets a great laugh when she stares blankly at the audience while her puppet performs a sex act on Tyrone. How long has she been flashing that dead-eyed look? "All my life, baby." Feeling his oats and the tumultuous applause, the author joined the director on stage for the actors' last curtain call. Taking the mike, he announced in a Tyrone-powered roar, "My name is Rob Askins, and I'm an American playwright.

"We live in a dark world... so dark and hard to get through that people meet every Sunday and tell an impossible story about rebirth. What you're looking at tonight is an impossible story of rebirth. When my father died, it almost killed me. I spent a long time, hiding in darkness, and I finally looked around and I said, 'We can make it through. We can make it through together.' And that's why this is a comedy."

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