Robert Askins’ Hand to God ran for nearly a year on Broadway, and it’s easy to see why. Funny, irreverent, and downright raunchy, it delivers a riotous (and smugly satisfying) send up of flyover country and its pious hypocrisies.
The setting is a basement classroom in a church “somewhere in Texas where the country meets the city”; recently widowed Margery (Lisa Velten Smith) is running a puppetry workshop for a group of the congregation’s teens, which includes her son Jason (Nick LaMedica), his secret crush Jessica (Maggie Carr), and local troublemaker Timothy (Michael Greer). The puppets are intended to be used to create a show promoting Christian values, but Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, has taken on a life of its own, and starts diabolically expressing Jason’s deepest and darkest “id”-sprung thoughts and desires, wreaking havoc on Jason’s relationship to his mother and his community. Meanwhile, Margery is battling demons of her own: psychologically unmoored by the loss of her husband, she, too, gives in to the urgings of her id and violates social taboos, in ways that are both shocking and outrageously funny.
Askins’ dialogue is sharp and cutting, and the interplay between Jason and his possessed hand is irresistibly funny. Nick LaMedica is a magician with the hand puppet, and the rapid-fire comedic interplay between Jason and Tyrone is sheer genius, not only on the level of dialogue, but also as physical comedy (Tyrone’s physicality – which relies on the manipulation of his arms by way of a couple of small sticks – gives a whole new meaning to the word “slapstick”). Carr is equally deft with a puppet, and the second act puppet coitus scene may well be the funniest bit of physical comedy I’ve seen all year (yes: puppet sex. Do you need another reason to see this show?).
Lisa Velten Smith pulls out the stops in her embodiment of Margery, a housewife with decades of bottled-up rage, frustration, and desire. A bit like Jason/Tyrone, she too finds herself possessed by demons in the course of the play, and at times her body takes over her mind to delicious comic effect – as, for example, in an unforgettable silent tantrum that sends her long limbs flying in all directions. Both mother and son reveal the psychological toll levied by social repression, especially repression of the religious variety.
Amusing as all these characters are, Askins doesn’t give us a lot of room to empathize with them; they seem more to be objects of our mockery than subjects we are invited to care about. The exception is Pastor Greg, who, as embodied by Tim McGeever, comes across as genuinely kind, honest, and moral; he’s a man who has flaws, for sure, but hypocrisy is not chief among them. Of the surprises this play offers, then, the most welcome may be that in Pastor Greg it generally eschews the stereotype of the janus-faced clergyman.
The play is extremely enjoyable, but overall the story feels unfocused and unresolved: what starts out as a gratifying condemnation of religious hypocrisy fizzles into an Oedipal drama in the end. As such, Hand to God is a little bit like having chocolate chip cookies for dinner – pleasurable, transgressive, and wickedly fun, but not a really fully satisfying meal.