Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 7, 2015
Hand to God by Robert Askins. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Sydney Maresca. Lighting design by Jason Lyons. Sound design by Jill BC Du Boff. Puppet design by Marte Johanne Ekhougen. Fight director by Robert Westley. Cast: Steven Boyer, Genva Carr, Michael Oberholtzer, Sarah Stiles, Beau Baxter, Pamela Bob, Alex Mandell, and Marc Kudisch.
In it, the young Jason (Steven Boyer) is navigating one of the most difficult stretches of his adolescence, filled with anguish over the recent death of his father and his own yet-unfulfilled sexual yearnings, with a gray puppet strapped to his left hand that never lets him forget all he wants to do and all he can never be. But this therapeutic partner, named Tyrone and outfitted with the requisite googly eyes and a charming shock of red hair (he and the other puppets are the engaging work of Marte Johanne Ekhougen), is hardly the good influence that Jason's mom, Margery (Geneva Carr), intended when she started a puppet class in their Lutheran church's basement.
Over time, Tyrone evolves from a cuddly playmate into first the manifestation of Jason's untamable id and then something that, if not the embodiment of Satan in felt, may not be far removed. Could a real young man, however troubled, ever unleash the horrors (biting off appendages, drawing pentagrams, crucifying stuffed animals, and so forth) that Jason does while under Tyrone's thrall? This question provides both Askins and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel with their most ready inspiration and their frothiest source of fun, and the buoyant Boyer is delightful in meeting the challenge of presenting both Jason at his most innocent and Tyrone at his most dastardly. (The childlike playroom set by Beowulf Boritt further highlights this duality.)
If Hand to God is presently at its juiciest when they're all working in concert, teasing but preserving the mystery of how much even our darkest instincts will let us lash out at the world we perceive as the source of our most vexing problems. But it's not a light that burns very brightly, or for very long. Each new revelation provides details that weaken the dramatic foundation of this conflict, so that by the beginning of the second act you're left with no real question about whether Jason is truly possessed or just disturbed.
Though Askins tries at a number of junctures to take his story wider and deepershowing how Margery dysfunctionally deals with many of the same pressures crippling Jason when she's faced with advances from both her sex-starved student Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) and the church's Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch)those scenes struggle to ignite sparks, even if Margery's troubles are more immediately relatable than of her son and where the closest thing to the play's heart may be located.
When Hand to God played Off-Broadway last year at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (it had also been done at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011), these moments registered much more strongly. But Carr, who made them work there through sheer focus of will, has broadened significantly here, her Margery becoming as much of a mushy caricature here as the roles sprawlingly overplayed (and accented) by Kudisch, Oberholtzer, and especially Stiles.
Without that emotional framework, the play comes across as a one-dimensional indictment of Southern religious culture. If that's perhaps a ripe target, it's also a dusty one, and one that's been handled with more flair and often more biting wit elsewhere. (Otherwise pointless bookending scenes about the necessity of organized evil in society, featuring Tyrone alone and spotlighted onstage as Earth's eternal agent of psychological chaos, suggest pretty strongly who Askins considers the real villain being investigated.)
Boyer, however, has lost none of his absorbing honesty. His Jason is a fine anchor for the evening, layered with the sadness and mischievousness that herald a boy becoming a man far too soon. He projects the palpable pain of someone being ripped apart from the inside out, someone who could easily be swayed by any force that wants to pick up the slack that his world has created in his life. And, for that matter, Boyer is so seductively malevolent as Tyrone, you can't help but (kind of) love him from that angle, too.
Cherishing sin more than virtue might not be the best idea outside the walls of the Booth, but inside it might be okay for two hours or so. Boyer makes a convincing case for that devilish approach, at any rate, though a well-reasoned counterargument would go a long way to making the rest of Hand to God as compelling as its leading man.