Hand to God
Hand to God by Robert Askins
On Broadway at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th Street, New York, NY
Reviewed by Scott Klavan at a preview performance March 19, 2015
Hand To God is a new, two-act American Broadway play. It has no stars in the cast, is not based on a popular book or film, did not begin at a regional theater, and has no apparent connection to England, although some of its production team seem to have come from Europe. It was developed and initially performed in New York’s Off-Off Broadway, at small theater companies that have for decades been promoting new work. These facts make the piece a rarity, and in a current atmosphere where new non-musical Broadway plays are a very hard sell, may even be on the verge of dying as a profitable art form, its production is a demonstration of courage, and hope. (Disgraced, the Pulitzer Prize winner reviewed here in December, closed early, unable even to last until the Tony award nominations.) After attending a preview performance at The Booth Theatre, it appears that Hand To God may not save the American Play, but will invigorate it; it’s a starting point, leading the way, maybe, back to health.
Hand To God originated with the venerable Ensemble Studio Theatre (EST), a membership company, which, under the longtime leadership of its founder and Artistic Director, the late Curt Dempster, and now led by William Carden, has been discovering, developing and presenting new pieces in its modest theater space on far West 52nd St. since 1968. On its website, EST says it has developed and produced over 6,000 new works. The play then moved to Manhattan Class Company (MCC), where it had a successful Off-Broadway run. EST & MCC have bucked the odds in a city where low box office receipts and only occasional donations and grants are beaten by high rents to regularly put small theaters out of business. The play’s author, Robert Askins, is an EST playwriting member, and for him, as well as some of the actors, it is a Broadway debut. In its making the transfer from Off-Off to Off to Broadway, the production has achieved what hundreds of projects and playwrights dream of every year in New York. By that criteria, it’s already a smash.
The work itself is a dark comedy set in a Texas town, in a church basement where a Christian youth group led by local woman and recent widow Margery (Geneva Carr), uses hand-made puppets as a way of coping with inter-personal and spiritual difficulties, as a form of self-expression. The group, supported by church pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), includes three reluctant teens: aggressive, intolerant Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), bookish, secretly strong-willed Jessica (Sarah Stiles), and Margery’s son Jason (Steven Boyer) a sensitive, troubled young man reeling, along with his mother, from the death of his father to a heart attack.
Margery’s attempt to bring the group to piety is soon brought down by everyone’s barely hidden lusts, rages and general dissatisfaction with the human condition. In private, Pastor Greg comes on to Margery, who rebuffs him. Timothy then pursues Margery, whose loneliness propels her into an angry physical affair with the teen. Meanwhile, Jason tries to date Jessica and entertains her with his puppet, called Tyrone; he and Tyrone perform Abbott & Costello’s classic routine Who’s On First for her. But the puppet suddenly comes to life, taking on the persona of a cruel, demonic force. The puppet’s influence grows, causing mayhem; Jason is judged as being possessed by the Devil. Pastor Greg tries an exorcism on the puppet, but fails. Jason grows estranged from his mother, blaming her for his father’s unhappy life and early death. Margery and Timothy’s affair is exposed. Finally, with Jessica and Pastor Greg’s backing, Jason tries to separate from puppet Tyrone. After a violent, bloody battle with his own hand, Jason is able to shake off the evil thing in himself; the teen and his mother have a shaky reconciliation.
This bland recounting doesn’t reflect the off-kilter, outlandish, electrically coarse atmosphere and action of the play. The sex scene between Margery and Timothy is frenetic, filled with silly sadomasochism; puppet Tyrone defiles the church basement with wacky demonic symbols; there are numerous curse-filled tirades by Tyrone, and even lengthy sex acts between Tyrone and Jessica’s puppet. The play opens and closes with sardonic sermons by the demon puppet, about the nature of Good and Evil.
Hand To God exemplifies the style of many of today’s new plays, and much of our current culture, books, TV, film: it is short in duration, with a purposely tossed-off, implausible plot; straightforward and blunt in its language, making no attempt at lyricism, poetry or beauty in the words; has a kinetic, often mesmerizing pace and energy; in-your-face, hilarious obscenities; makes a cursory attempt at stating a theme, but mostly evinces a disregard for the kind of serious, assiduous search for the truth of reality and humanity, exploration of Love, Death, Freedom, the Soul, et al, through large, complex relationships and actions that characterized plays of the past. While today’s culture also tends to substitute sentimentality for deep, heartfelt emotionalism, Hand To God resists both; the play has a hard-ish heart. Above everything, it is the visceral charge that matters.
While there is much that is lamentable in this new kind of play tradition, there are also things that are welcome: these pieces are often biting, audacious and, despite occasional attempts at meaning, virtually devoid of pretension and solemnity. They are not boring. It’s seductive, one could get used to it, and one should, probably: this modern play seems increasingly undeniable and necessary, as young people are growing completely detached from the sober, thoughtful Old-School, non-musical pieces- those without TV-Film stars in them, anyway. If there’s a synonymous musical, it might be Book Of Mormon, which uses dirty, caustic songs and scatology, rejecting the sincerely direct, melodic system of the Old Days, to get its story and thematic stuff across. (For the record, Mormon’s creators Trey Parker & Matt Stone made the movie Team America: World Police, which, yes, also featured puppet sex.)
Hand To God succeeds spectacularly in its absurd set pieces, and not-so-much in its periodic tries at moving drama. Once you’ve gone off the deep end, it’s tough to put your feet back on the ground. The dumbly frustrated, bent encounters between the characters, unhinged sex, and, in particular, its fantastically creative puppetry, make for hypnotically enjoyable fun. A tale of a puppet or ventriloquist dummy turning on its owner is not new, certainly, featured in numerous movies and TV shows, going back to the classic British film Dead Of Night, not-so-classic 1978’s Magic, two famous episodes of The Twilight Zone, etc.; on stage, vulgar puppets were featured in the long-running musical Avenue Q. (A facetious mention of The Exorcist doesn’t mitigate Hand To God’s resemblance to that once controversial horror show.) Even so, the puppet creations by Marte Johanne Ekhougen are startling and really, really funny.
The first act, ending with the revelation of the demonic possession, leaves the audience with a literal buzz, wondering what will happen next; an accomplishment, since many modern playwrights don’t even bother with a second act, either unable to figure it out, or afraid the audience will run away at half-time. The second act starts unconvincingly, with a too-straight encounter between Pastor Greg and Margery. But the dreaded Act Two Fail is prevented by the wild, long, uproarious sex scene between Jason and Jessica’s puppets; worth the price of admission.
Thematically, things are pretty garbled. While the intro and exit sermons by the devil puppet talk derisively of people’s need to create a sense of evil and the difficulty of all of us integrating the good and bad sides of our nature- and the finale tacks on the fairly lame self-help suggestion that people let themselves “off the hook”- the story itself cannot help but portray a definite moral universe and, intentionally or not, delineates a clear border between good and evil. In fact, it could be argued that Pastor Greg is really the hero of the piece. His attempt to date Margery is affectionate, kind, if foolishly naïve, and when, in a later scene, a disconsolate Margery tries to tear up the Bible, he implores her to continue, if it will genuinely help her. Greg, then, could be looked at as an effective and brave spiritual counselor: he knows that dogma can be eschewed in order to get to the meaning behind the words. But the playwright presents Greg with uncertainty; the character jumps between Good Guy and Schmuck; maybe it would have been fatally unhip to make a pastor a shiningly admirable fellow. It could always be said the play is just trying to show the mixture in all people, but that’s too easy; the play’s failure to take a stand, this hesitance- along with the characters’ lack of ardent, affecting emotional connection to each other- compresses its scope, and meaning.
However, the cast and direction are magnetic, hugely appealing. EST member Geneva Carr makes Margery bitter and brittle in her sadness and lust; Michael Oberholtzer is both cool and ridiculous as the teenaged seducer; Sarah Stiles, smart in her knowing nasality; and Marc Kudisch as Pastor Greg proves himself a very underrated Broadway veteran, mostly of musicals but here, showing an understated naturalism borne of great experience. The ostensible lead, Steven Boyer, is extremely talented, and finely skillful with the puppet Tyrone; the audience fully believes that the hand toy is alive. Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, with a name from a Marx Brothers movie, puts on the show with dynamism and confidence, creating a drolly twisted atmosphere, abetted by weird and earthy sound-music by Jill BC Du Boff, and clever set design and changes by Beowulf Boritt (Are all the names here comic pseudonyms? I began to suspect it.), some of which go over the audience’s heads, such as the sudden shift to a new set at the top of Act II, and, in a moment fully appreciated by the crowd, the revelation of the devilish designs in the church basement caused by Tyrone later in the act.
As a sign of encouragement for Hand To God, for this new kind of Broadway play, one with Off and Off-Off pedigree and spirit, it might be worth noting comments made to the reviewer by an audience member sitting next to him: a stranger, a woman of about 30, decked out, maybe from out-of-town, probably a newcomer to New York theater. At the end of the first act, she exclaimed happily, without prompting: “This play is like…Wow!” Then, at the finish, the end of the more troubling second act: “It was kind of…disturbing.” But it was on her face: she was turned on.
Scott Klavan, theatre writer atEscape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including The Joy Luck Club. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater by the Blind (TBTB, now Theater Breaking Through Barriers), and his play Double Murder was published inBest American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. In 2014, he starred in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the new Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, earning him a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival 2015. He recently directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, at the United Solo Festival in New York, and a series of staged readings of a new comedy, Sheila & Angelo, at the Dramatist Guild. In June and July, 2015, he will appear in the Off-Broadway production of the musical Sayonara, for Pan Asian Rep.