Teenagers have long been known to grapple with their ids. That struggle is made literal in Robert Askin’s pervertedly pleasurable dark comedy Hand to God (opening tonight at the Booth Theatre). Jason, a shy, doughy-faced Texas youth still smarting from the sudden death of his father, is dragged by his mom into a puppet ministry at his local Lutheran church. Turns out he has a knack for it — but soon finds himself in the thrall of Tyrone, a red-fur-trimmed hand puppet who emerges as a crass, blunt-talking atheist with an agenda all his own. This turn of events leads inevitably to vandalism, exorcism, and a hilariously prolonged and graphic scene of puppet-on-puppet copulation that would make the monsters in Avenue Q blush.
Steven Boyer, who originated the role of Jason (and Tyrone) in a 2011 Off Broadway production, delivers a show-stopping performance of bracing nuance. Not only does he make Jason an avatar for kind-hearted, picked-on loners, but he imbues Tyrone with a distinctive personality and charisma all his own, including a guttural rasp that pierces pretensions and Christian bromides with equal fervor. As a result, their climactic, tour-de-force second-act showdown carries a surprising dramatic heft. When he’s not trying to tamp down Tyrone’s bawdier and more devilish impulses, Jason quietly pines for Jessica (Sarah Stiles, a deadpan delight), who joins the church program despite the fact that she’s “more into Balinese shadow puppetry.”
Geneva Carr drawls a considerably broader portrait of Jason’s widowed mother, Margery, whose own struggle with good-vs.-evil duality is more sit-commish than strictly plausible. She rebuffs the advances of the slick, opportunistic Pastor Greg (Marc Kadisch) only to succumb to the come-ons of a surly, horny teen who is her son’s chief tormentor (Michael Oberholtzer). Askin seems to be suggesting that Margery’s dueling impulses are parallel to Jason’s — but they feel more schematic than earned. Despite Carr’s best efforts, I never really bought Margery’s choices as anything but the product of a farce-minded playwright.
There are other stumbles in the storytelling. We never learn the ages of the kids, though a reference to a “homecoming dance” suggests they’re in high school — too old, in other words, to gather in a church basement of cinder blocks the color of Easter-egg blue (the set design is by Beowulf Boritt) for a puppet pageant.
Why get hung up on believability given that the show’s premise is outrageously over-the-top? Jason is so sharply drawn that you suspect that Askin strives for something deeper and more ambitious than merely a clever dark comedy. And he hints at that fact in the Richard Dawkins-inspired monologues that Tyrone delivers as bookends. Most audiences won’t get bogged down in these infelicities, and Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s fleet direction barely pauses between punchlines.
And Boyer is a revelation, a one-man orchestra conducting a symphony of bipolar confusion. Or perhaps I should just credit Tyrone. As with Paradise Lost and Faust, the devil gets all the best lines in Hand to God. And he’s seldom looked as innocuous, or as adorable. Grade: B