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Hand to God

Robert Askins' play about demonic puppets makes Avenue Q look like Captain Kangaroo.

Michael Oberholtzer, Geneva Carr, Steven Boyer, Marc Kudisch, and Sarah Stiles star in Robert Askins' Hand to God, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, at the Booth Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

We're told in the opening moments of Robert Askins Hand to God that antisocial behavior is often explained away by one supremely lame excuse: "The devil made me do it." All the characters in this pitch-black comedy are behaving badly, but are they really possessed? Opinions will vary, but everyone will laugh their heads off for Hand to God, the funniest new play on Broadway.

Hand to God has had a remarkable journey over the past four years. It started in the 99-seat Ensemble Studio Theatre before moving to the larger Lucille Lortel Theatre with MCC. It now plays Broadway's Booth Theatre, where it brings a punk-rock edge to the decidedly conservative century-old house. Without seeing what a truly funny play this is, one might suspect some sort of Faustian intervention.

The story takes place in a Texas Lutheran church. Margery (Geneva Carr) is struggling with the recent loss of her husband. Her only solace is the Christian puppet ministry that Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) has allowed her to establish in the church basement. Her pupils are nerdy hot girl Jessica (Sarah Stiles), juvenile delinquent Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), and her son, Jason (Steven Boyer). Jason is the most talented puppeteer of the bunch, but he has a dark secret: His left hand is possessed by Tyrone, a foulmouthed hell-raiser bent on upending Jason's bottom-feeder status. He confronts bully Timothy, aggressively hits on Jessica, and even calls out mom for her poor choices. He snarls at Pastor Greg, daring him to even think about an exorcism. Truths are told and blood is spilt as hurricane Tyrone ravages the fragile ecosystem of the puppet ministry.

The entire cast lend their characters an authenticity, which clashes nicely with the surreality of a satanic puppet. Kudisch's Pastor Greg is a man who wants to star in a Hallmark movie but ends up in a '70s horror flick. His delivery of saccharine lines to Margery, like "My ears were made just to hear you cry," are liable to send members of the audience into a diabetic coma. Carr's Margery is a woman struggling to hold back the deluge of her animalistic desires with the crumbling dam of her identity as a good Christian mother. She doesn't want to hear Pastor Greg's sappy country-music-reject pickup lines. She wants to hear the rebel yell of bad-boy Timothy, an ostensible "child," who is taller than both of the adults in the play. Oberholtzer leans into this frightening contradiction, blurring the lines of responsibility and making us all feel extremely uncomfortable. Although a teenager, Stiles' Jessica is undoubtedly the most stable person of the five, with a keen sense of reality. She's a calm voice of reason in the lunatic asylum.

Of course, the standout performance comes from Steven Boyer who thrillingly portrays two very distinct personas: Jason the wimp and puppet Tyrone (Lucifer incarnate). Boyer's left hand berates and manhandles the rest of his body in such a convincing fashion that we forget it's just one actor up there. "It's you and me kid. Just you and me," Tyrone growls as he holds a terrified Jason against his bed frame. We're never quite sure if Jason is truly possessed or if this is the defense mechanism of an extremely gifted puppeteer, but Boyer's talent is such that even the most skeptical among us habitually returns to the former.

Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel leans into the stealthy duality in Askins' script to hilarious result. Terror lurks behind every crayon drawing of Jesus, made manifest by Beowulf Boritt's dollhouse set. Augmented from the MCC production, it never ceases to deliver surprises and jaw-dropping moments. (At one point, Boyer pauses for what feels like a minute as the audience slowly takes in the full scale of the visual horror show.) Sydney Maresca's costumes give us an immediate sense of time and place with Jason and Timothy wearing the latest Kmart fashions. Jill BC Du Boff completes the effect with fist-pumping country-rock music in the scene transitions. Robert Westley's fight choreography is terrifyingly realistic, undergirded by ample blood and gore. We know it's just stage blood, but it is employed in such a way that when we see it we can't help but recoil.

Of course, this may be a deal breaker for the more squeamish theatergoer. This play is rife with violence, sex, and foul language. But if you can get past all of that, or even learn to embrace it, you'll find a truly enjoyable night out with an adult comedy the likes of which exists nowhere else on Broadway. Hand to God is a welcome oasis of edge on a rialto increasingly dominated by safe, family-friendly fare.