Hand to God – A Review

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This Saturday I originally had plans to go to a St. Patrick’s Day party. This was the first time in a long time that I was actually free on parade day and I even went the extra yard and ordered a St. Patrick’s Day-themed t-shirt to wear. I even dug out some flair from celebrations back in the day. In other words, I was totally prepared for this party, so of course it wound up being cancelled.

But the universe has a funny way of evening itself out – no more than ten minutes after I received the notification that the party was off, I saw a tweet promoting discounted tickets to the previews for a new Broadway show, Hand to God. Now, I had just been to the City on Sunday, but Broadway tickets are usually pretty expensive and the lure of getting to see a show for only $20 was just too much for me to resist. I took the cancellation of the party as a sign that I was meant to make my second trek to New York in seven days and take advantage of this great deal. I snapped up a ticket, questioned my sanity, and started making my plans.

Now, I didn’t know much about Hand to God, other than it was supposed to be darkly funny and featured a puppet. That was more than enough to pique my interest, but I was completely sold when I heard that the play was produced by one of the guys that also produced Avenue Q. Hopefully this means that puppets are making a comeback on Broadway. The reviews for the show’s off-Broadway run were all very enthusiastic so I was very excited to see if the show could live up to the hype. I didn’t even know if this show was a play or a musical or much about the plot; I was willing to take a leap of faith and hope for the best. And I am so very glad that I did.

Hand to God actually exceeded the positive buzz; the play (not musical) is so funny that I actually missed a few of the lines because I couldn’t hear the actors of the roaring laughter of the audience. The show is raunchy and dark and wickedly hilarious – it’s the first time that I’ve ever been in an audience that applauded after almost every single scene ended. The first hour of the play flew by so quickly that it felt like only fifteen minutes had passed; when the light came up for the intermission, the audience was taken by surprise. Everyone was so into what was happening on stage that we collectively lost track of time. That’s the sign of a great production.

There’s a lot going on in Hand to God, but it primarily the story of people in a small Texas church. After her husband dies, Margery (Geneva Carr) channels her grief by starting a teen Christian Puppet Ministry at her church. Her group is small – girl-next-door Jessica (Sarah Stiles), bad boy Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) and Margery’s shy son Jason (Steven Boyer) – and generally disinterested, though Jason seems to really enjoy working with his puppet Tyrone. That is, until Tyrone takes on a devilish personality of his own. The play is a battle of wills, as Tyrone urges Jason to give in to his darker impulses and act out. Is Tyrone possessed by the devil? Is Jason? Or is Jason simply losing his mind? The play is hysterically funny throughout, but it’s also touching and deals with some pretty big topics.

As Jason and Tyrone, Steven Boyer steals the show. He won an Obie for this performance off-Broadway and he is the heart and soul of the entire production. Hand of God could easily not work if the roles of Jason and Tyrone are not handled just right – the show could become too campy or just silly. Boyer does tremendous double duty and effortlessly makes Jason and Tyrone two distinct performances. Boyer has to carry on a conversation with himself throughout the play, yet creates the illusion of two separate personalities engaged in a tug of war. Not only is his acting wonderful, but Boyer is excellent at the necessary puppetry. There is one scene where Tyrone appears to drag Jason out of bed and people in the audience actually gasped at how realistic it looked. Tyrone becomes an entirely independent character and you’d be forgiven for momentarily forgetting that he is the extension of an actor. You can’t take your eyes off of them the entire time that they are on stage. It’s a thrilling performance. The rest of the cast – Geneva Carr, Sarah Stiles, Michel Oberholtzer and Marc Kudisch as Pastor Greg —is just as good and create interesting characters. They all have great comedic timing and work well together; it was smart for them to start the Broadway run with actors who are familiar with these characters. They all give realistic and lived-in performances.

Some other thoughts:

  • This is most definitely not a show for kids. Don’t let the presence of a puppet make you think otherwise. You have to be very comfortable with the F word, violence, and sexual situations to see this show. It’s not for the faint of heart or easily offended.
  • I didn’t realize it at the time, but I saw the very first preview for the show. They’ve all been doing this long enough that it had the feel of a normal performance – the lighting and sound were all on point and the actors all did wonderfully. If anything, the only thing they need to fix is pausing longer for the audience laughter.
  • Kudos to Michel Oberholtzer for a vanity-free performance and his willingness to be on stage in his underwear.
  • I didn’t miss out completely on the St. Patrick’s fun on Saturday – I got up early to do kegs and eggs at 8 am before I left for the City, which was very fun but made for a very long day for me.
  • I had some excitement before the show – I was sitting in the dining area of Grand Central Station, enjoying some sweet treats when there was suddenly a commotion three tables down from me. Twenty police had swarmed the area and some guy was being dragged out in handcuffs. NYPD actually had to evacuate us from the area because they had deployed pepper spray, which I know from experience is not pleasant (#college). Never a dull moment.
  • If you thought the marionette sex scene from Team America: World Police was hilarious, you haven’t seen anything until you see Hand to God.

That all being said, I will be very curious to see how Hand to God does during its Broadway fun. It’s an amazing show and the audience that I saw it with ate it up with a spoon, but it definitely has more of an off-Broadway sensibility. This is not a mainstream show – not only because of the language and humor, but it deals with questions of religion and faith that might not connect with all audiences. I loved it and would recommend it to just about everyone, but I worry that this show might have some trouble finding an audience. Book of Mormon has a very similar sense of humor, but that is also, at its heart, a very traditional musical. I just hope that people give Hand of God a chance; it would be a real shame if this show isn’t seen by a wide variety of people. I’m certainly delighted that I saw it.

Hand to God is in previews March 14- April 6; the show opens on April 9th.

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