Steven Boyer and Scott Sowers in Hand to God
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Steven Boyer and Scott Sowers in Hand to God
(© Gerry Goodstein)
Joining a rich current crop of shows about the Almighty, from The Book of Mormon to Sister Act, Robert Askins' Hand to God, now at Ensemble Studio Theatre, might just be the quirkiest and funniest of them all. But for all its laughs, the play -- directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel -- also has a coarseness that obscures its strange and beguiling heart.

The work starts in a Sunday school classroom with colorful plastic chairs, posters and a puppet theater in the corner. A puppet -- who will become known as Tyrone -- appears before the small curtains and delivers an instantly riveting version of the Book of Genesis ("we rutted as we chose, careless in the night") and the establishment of religion ("right is for all of us; wrong is for just you").

Tyrone inhabits the left arm of 15-year-old Jason (Steven Boyer), who lives in a Southern town with his widowed mother Margery (Geneva Carr), a member of an evangelical Christian congregation where the youth activities include puppet shows that teach children about the Bible.

Coping with a decidedly weird kid, Margery is under a fair amount of pressure as Pastor Greg (Scott Sowers) wants her to get the puppet show ready for Sunday. Meanwhile, delinquent teenager Timothy (Bobby Moreno) has the hots for her, and a nice local girl named Jessica (Megan Hill) would like to get closer to Jason.

Askins has a remarkable feel for dramatic situations and dialogue that leave an audience scarcely able to breathe. In an affecting scene in the front seat of a car, Margery tries to convince Jason to stick with the puppet ministry. In true Southern fashion, she pretends not to hear objections and ratchets up the guilt, but ends up crying out in existential frustration.

Soon, Tyrone begins to take on a life of his own, speaking aloud uncomfortable truths that usually aren't expressed ("your father ate himself to death"). In a scene by turns astoundingly funny and deeply emotional, Jason and Tyrone lie in his bedroom and describe glass half-full and half-empty versions of Jason's life.

The question begins to become apparent, is Tyrone the devil or is he simply Jason's dark side? However, as the play progresses, a couple of scenes of over-the-top blood-letting only serve to turn off our sympathies and leave us wondering why we're being told these stories.

The acting ensemble's skills are exemplary. Sowers brings a Robert Duvall-like decency to Pastor Greg. Moreno glowers as Timothy. Hill makes Jessica a charming misfit (who finally decides if you can't beat 'em, join 'em and brings a female puppet to Jason's house to engage in hilariously carnal acts with Tyrone), and Carr achingly and charmingly conveys Margery's anxieties, as well as gamely navigates character shifts that, in the script, seem too abrupt.

Still, if anyone should be singled out, it's Boyer, who plays two parts in one role, gives Tyrone a distinctively throaty, seductive voice and displays extraordinary creativity and dexterity in his puppet work. Audiences are lucky this provocative character is in his hands.