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Hand to God On Broadway Broadway

Hand to God: Downtown Review by Elyse Sommer
Add-On Comments by Elyse Sommer

Hand to God
Geneva Carr, Sarah Stiles, Marc Kudisch, Steven Boyer, and Michael Oberholtzer.(Photo by Joan Marcus)
The demonic, foul-mouthed hand puppet uprooted from Hell that takes possession of Jason, an unhappy, sexually repressed Texas teen in Hand to God has found its way to Broadway. Originally produced by off off Broadway's adventurous Ensemble Studio Theatre, the audaciously dark comedy received excellent reviews and triggered an enthusiastic fan base that would encourage the equally resourceful MCC Theater to join forces and produce yet another limited run at its home at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.

As expected, word of mouth and sell-out business would ultimately interest additional producers for a still risky Broadway run. Will the gamble pay off in light of all the competition from the higher profiled and bigger budgeted shows now opening, all with hopes of being a hit and winning awards? While Hand to God would be eligible for a Tony, this is not the case for other award-giving organizations that have previously considered it.

I saw Hand to God at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, while CurtainUp editor Elyse Sommer reviewed the production at the Lortel. ( Original Downtown Review ) While I am in total accord with Elyse's assessment of the play and its performers, my assignment was to see how the production looked and played in its Broadway home and if it has changed in any appreciable way from what I remember.

To start with the run time. Although the play only runs one hour and forty-five minutes it includes an intermission. I feel it really would work better at a drive-thru-no-break ninety minutes.

Elyse mentions that the play ended on a "heart-wrenching" note. However, as it appeared to me at its last press preview on April 6, the final moralizing from a scarily devilish puppet peering out at the audience through the curtains in the darkened theater is more inclined to send a chill down your back than a produce any sensation of warmth. That plus the very long and bloody scene that precedes it gives Hand to God the kind of climactic frost that marked the film and stage musical Carrie.

About how the play looks on Broadway. With less than one-thousand seats, the Booth is one of the more intimate of the Broadway theaters; yet it nicely embraces the five-character comedy.

Beowulf Boritt's colorful sets are a whimsical delight, particularly the cluttered basement of the church where are kept all the props that are utilized in their puppet ministry. This is where Jason, as played better than ever with a forlorn brio by Steven Boyer, allows his pent up rage and anger toward his mother Margery (a comically impassioned performance by Geneva Carr) to manifest in a most unorthodox way. As the director of the puppet ministry, Margery's relationships with the amorous Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) and with Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), an incorrigible teen who is sexually obsessed with her are resolved in ways that are both hilarious and, as with the latter, also horrifying. Oberholtzer is the new member to the cast, and he is as veraciously over-the-top as is Jason's terrifying appendage Tyrone.

As the play is deliberately abrasive, it is also devilishly clever enough to keep it from being offensive. This, I suspect, is its saving grace even when its prolonged and certainly provocative sexual activity, as performed by both human and puppets, becomes the primary dramatic catalyst. This is especially true as it reveals Jason's subconscious desires. I suspect that all the actors' performances have been sharpened by director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, but I was more impressed than ever with the comically droll Sarah Stiles as Jason's unexpectedly sophisticated girl friend Jessica. A wryly comical Kudisch gave us plenty to laugh at as he attempts to seduce the totally disinterested Margery.

Although I am not sure if the tourists, particularly Evangelicals, will flock to this show as they apparently have to the arguably blasphemous The Book of Mormon , I am pretty sure that there is an audience ready to laugh at themselves and also laugh away the demons, those both fully materialized in our lives and those still partly submerged in the depths of our subconscious, that would deny us our sense of humor.

Hand to God by Robert Askins
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Cast: Steven Boyer (Jason/Tyrone), Marc Kudisch (Pastor Greg), Geneva Carr (Margery), Michael Oberholtzer (Timothy), Sarah Stiles (Jessica)
Sets: Beowulf Boritt
Costumes: Sydney Maresca
Lighting: Jason Lyons
Sound: Jill BC DuBoff
Puppet Design: Marte Johanne Ekhougen
Fight direction: Robert Westley
Stage Manager: Rachel Bauder
Running Time: 1 Hour and 45 minutes, includes one intermission
Booth Theatre 222 West 45th Street
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at 4/06 press preview Update: Closing at the Booth 1/03/16-- but moving to London's Vaudeville Theatre. Cast there TBA
Add-On Comments by Elyse Sommer
Hand to God is probably the most un-Broadwayish show to land on the Great White Way this season. Though its human cast is excellent the real star is the foul-mouthed, uncontrollable puppet named Tyrone— Playwright Robert Askins' sly nod to Eugene O'Neill's the dysfunctional Tyrone family.

No doubt the great reviews helped Hand to God to journey from off-off-Broadway to Off-Broadway, and now to the Great White Way. But word of mouth about it being sooooooooooooo hilarious and smart probably was the real fuel to help this little engine make make the final giant leap, ditto for Stephen Boyer's star-making performance. Not to be overlooked is the history of
Avenue Q , another little show that made it big using puppets.

Hand to God also follows in the footsteps of other MCC plays with uptown ambitions — ambitions that propelled moves but not always quite as hoped for. MCC regular Neil LaBute's Reasons to be Pretty moved to the Lyceum in 2009 hoping to nab a Tony, but closed, without one after just three months. Laurie Metcalf's bravura performanc in Sharr White's The Other Place sent it to Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre in December 2012 with similar hopes; it also fell short of its expectations, closing less than three months later without the hope for Best Actress statue for Metcalf.

Hand to God arrives on Broadway. The hope and a prayers this time are for Stephen Boyer to nab a Best Actor award. Good as he is, this is a highly competitive awards category so Boyer needs plenty of prayers to win. Also likely to be in the producers' and playwright's prayers is the hope that the awards voters will see the play's serious social commentary shine through the farcical surface, and hand it a best play award. That said, Hand to God might have had a better chance for a really long run at a venue like New World Stages. Yet, who's to say that this won't be MCC's miracle and become the little engine to pull in a bundle of awards and earn its keep on Broadway.

In the meantime, A new play by Mr. Askins is already scheduled to open at their downtown theater. It's called Permission and again examines an aspect of Christian life, the practice of Christian Domestic Discipline, as espoused by a married couple to be played by Justin Bartha and Elizabeth Reaser. For more details, go to the lettr P heading in our Off-Broadway Listings.

Hand to God: Downtown Review by Elyse Sommer Original Review of Hand to God at the Lucille Lortel Theater
". . .the thing about a savior is you never know where to look. Might just be the place you saw the devil before.".— Tyrone, the co-star with Jason the teenager whose Id he takes hold of along with his hand.
Stephen Boyer & Tyrone (Joan Marcus)
Jason is a quiet, unassuming, ordinary looking teenager, an unlikely star of even a modest play. Until you look at his left hand to which a bug-eyed, toothy sock puppet is firmly attached.

So is Hand to God a puppet show? Something to which you should have brought a couple of kids? No way. Jason isn't so much holding the puppet, as the other way around. The puppet has taken control of the puppeteer and has morphed from quirky looking appendage, into an animated and opinionated creature who acts on what's going on in the mild mannered Jason's Id.

If you never lived in a Texas suburb and been a member of a fundamentalist church that actually runs Christian puppet ministries, rest assured that Mr. Askins is not inventing Cypress, Texas and churches whose practices include Christian puppet ministries to help teens appreciate the bible. Like Jason's widowed mom Margery, Askins' mother actually ran such a program. Though he left Texas for Brooklyn, he's tapped into his background to create this latest addition to shows about young people's tussles with the Almighty.

Hand to God doesn't sing like The Book of Mormon and Sister Act, nor does it boast a big cast or splashy production values. But it does have Tyrone, the devilishly funny puppet-cum-devil and a nice mix of raunchy black humor and emotional warmth — enough so for its initial run at Ensemble Studio Theatre to be reborn at MCC's Lucille Lortel Theatre.

While there are a couple of new cast members, director Moritz von Stuelpnagel is back at the helm to insure perfect teamwork. Luckily, the most necessary team member, puppet-puppeteer Steven Boyer, is also back.

The quirky humor and Boyer's amazingly deft handling of the foul-mouthed, uninhibited Tyrone and the more inhibited Jason had the audience in stitches at the matinee I attended. Some of funniest examples of Boyer's incredible dexterity — like the Jason-Tyrone version of the famous Abbott and Costello Who's on First?" routine— turned into the kind of applause winning show stoppers more common for a musical.

I would have preferred Mr. von Stuelpnagel to trust the material enough not to overdo even the best and funniest scenes. Still this quirky little show, like The Book of Mormons, manages to tackle religious questions and darker impulses without really offending either believers and non believers.

Given that Tyrone, the invader of teenager Jason's left hand and mind, is the true star of the play, the action fittingly begins with a prologue. It's delivered from a small stage at the rear of Beowulf Boritt's church basement where Jason's widowed mother Margery (Geneva Carr) is rehearsing a show as part of the congregation's puppet ministry.

The puppet of course is presenting a revisionist version of the Book of Genesis. It describes a "beginning" when "we were too stupid to be anything but what we were. We didn't shave. We rutted as we chose, careless in the night." According to our puppet bible interpreter this simplicity got messed up by "some asshole who invented right and wrong and the devil." He adds that since then when sombeody puts himself before the group and acts badly, all it takes to "stay around the camp fire" is to say "The devil made me do it."

That speech will have a familiar ring for followers of the late comedian George Carlin's satiric take on religion. Coming out of the mouth of the puppet designed by Marte Johanne Ekhougen it makes for an aptly amusing opener

Besides Jason: Margery has two other participants in the show she has been assigned to prepare for next Sunday service by Pastor Greg (Mark Kudisch): Timothy (Bobby Moreno Note: now Michael Oberholtzer).and Jessica (Sarah Stiles). Timothy is a wise acre with overactive hormones who needs no devil puppet to mouth outrageous comments. Jessica would really prefer Balinese shadow puppetry to what she's being given to work with but pragmatically says that she'll take what's on offer. She also likes Jason so his being there is an added incentive for her being part of the planned pageant.

Askin nicely builds up the plot complications, with various unresolved issues of grief, anger, guilt and physical frustration, exploding over the course of the two acts. The key explosion sees Jason's alter-ego become more and more uncontrollable alter-ego, unleashing heretofore repressed truths and feelings.

Jason's losing control of his good Christian persona is parallelled by his mom. While Pastor Greg's honorable amorous intentions fail to make her feel ready for remarriage, she finds herself succumbing to Timothy's passionate moves on her. Amusing as these over-the-top sexual encounters are, the most potent and hilarious sexual sizzle comes from the hand-to-hand carryings-on between Jessica's puppet Jolene and bad boy Tyrone.

If I were handing out marks, the acting overall would be a straight A. Marc Kudisch manages to make the Pastor come off more as the play's clear-headed, grounding presence rather than a too holier-than-thou and prissy man of God. However, the charismatic actor who's best known as a musical theater star seems to be a bit wasted in this role. Carr ably straddles Margery's somewhat abrupt shifts from kinky sex addict to conflicted widow and mother.

As I've already mentioned, the playwright and director tend to push some of the comic buttons too hard and for too long and the play is bound to run into accusations of piggybacking onto Avenue Q's success. That said, however, Hand to God, stands very much on its own feet as an unpretentious dark comedy that despite a rather grisly separation of Boy and puppet ends on a note that touches your heart. For sure, you'll never again see a sock puppet as just a piece of gussied up cloth.

Hand to God played at MCC's Lucille Lortel Theatre 121 Christopher Street from 2/19/14, opened 3/10/14 and closed 3/30/14
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