Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Hand to God

Sometimes you're lucky, and you see a hit Broadway show while it's still off-Broadway (Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson) or even off-off-Broadway (I tried to get tickets to the first workshop of Bloody, Bloody!), but sometimes you just can't get to it (in spite of all those times trying the Hamilton lottery).

Robert Askins' play Hand to God was one of those shows I should have seen while it was still off-Broadway, but (like Avenue Q) I just didn't. I corrected that last night at the Booth Theatre. Better late than never! This little play, which started out at E.S.T. and graduated to the off-Broadway mainstay MCC, is surprisingly at home on the Great White Way.

Comparisons to Avenue Q are inevitable, since both are hysterically funny as they utilize adult-themed puppets, but Hand to God is a very different play, and not just because it isn't a musical. In Avenue Q the puppeteers dress in black, and while they are in full view of the audience, we are meant to forget their presence at times. Hand to God offers a different conceit. We watch both the puppets and the puppeteers, unsure throughout whether they are really separate characters or not.

Steven Boyer does an amazing job playing both the mild-mannered teenager Jason and his seemingly possessed puppet Tyrone. Some of the scenes feature only Boyer and his puppet on stage, giving the audience a peek at some truly amazing acting. Like the puppeteers in Avenue Q, Boyer allows his mouth to move (as his character would have, anyway) but we quickly forget that his lips are in motion. Our attention is focused entirely on the id-filled Tyrone.

Also wonderful to watch is Avenue Q veteran Sarah Stiles, who plays Jessica, another teen with a penchant for puppetry. At the beginning of the play, Jessica is still building her puppet, and we do not see her creation until the second act. When she does enter, puppet in (on?) hand, the audience knows it is in for a treat. The scene that follows is really among four character, Jason, Jessica, and their respective puppets. In spite of the fact that they are apparently in control of their puppets (or are they?), Jason and Jessica are largely bored as their nasty alter-egos engage in behaviors they themselves wouldn't dream of doing.

The character/puppet dichotomy serves as a metaphor for adolescence, or perhaps for that long adolescence called life that frequently extends well past the teenage years, when supposedly adult human beings engage in behaviors they know they should have outgrown. (Jason's mother and Pastor, played by Geneva Carr and Marc Kudisch respectively, are cases in point.) The teenagers watch on, sometimes with indifference, and sometimes with horror, as a part of themselves goes crazy, trying to indulge in the darkest of desires.

Moritz von Stuelpnagel directs the show beautifully, and the multiple scene changes, which could have really slowed down the play, are handled wonderfully by the flexible set designed by Beowulf Boritt. I'm not sure how long a quirky show like Hand to God will last on Broadway, so see it soon!