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First Nighter: Robert Askins's Hand to God Deserves a Big Hand

04/07/2015 06:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

Tyrone is a puppet with sharp teeth that lives at the end of the right arm belonging to timid Jason (Steven Boyer). The fabric creature struts his considerable stuff in Hand to God, Robert Askins's career-making play that has now and for all the best reasons been transferred from off-off-Broadway to off-Broadway to Broadway, at the Booth.

In many ways Tyrone (is the name meant by Askins to conjure "tyrannical"?) is the focal character in this tragic yet constantly very funny five-live-actors play. You can't take your eyes from him -- although the temptation arises throughout the two-act work to watch Boyer speak the puppet's lines in raspy tones totally at odds with Jason's near whisper, his near whimper.

That temptation persists in large part because Boyer -- who resembles Irving Penn's photographs of the young Truman Capote -- is giving a career-making performance every bit equal to Askins'swork. He's utterly captivating, utterly heart-breaking in his transition from a shy boy with a puppeteering inclination to a terrified young man in possibly unbreakable thrall to a virtually autonomous bully who's not reluctant to declare himself the Devil.

Boyer's dexterity at commanding Tyrone's violent gestures is remarkable, but the actor's vocal tricks alone are a marvel of technique. (Ellen Lettrich is credited as vocal coach, and she clearly has her work cut out for her.)

Jason and Tyrone eventually take charge of events in a rural Texas church basement where Jason's mother Margery (Geneva Carr) is trying to prepare a puppet show in which precocious Jessica (Sarah Stiles), hormone-activated Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer) and Jason are the sole performers. Dropping in on them from time to time is pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch), who has less-than-religious eyes for Margery. For the record, so does Timothy.

It won't take spectators long to figure out that the perils of organized religion are what Askins is not only questioning but also excoriating. Margery's husband and Jason's dad has died six months earlier. To deal with her grief, Margery has buried herself in her faith -- not successfully, as is made manifest. Jason -- handling (or not handling his grief -- with "hand" crucial to the activity) -- is channeling his responses through the increasingly unrepressed Tyrone.

Before the final fade-out, Askins provides a series of beautifully sculpted scenes that intensify in danger. Greg proposes to Margery and is rebuffed. Timothy declares himself to Margery, who's able to turn back his advances but not entirely. Jason loses more and more control over Tyrone. Jessica provides balance.

Before long, Timothy, Greg, Margery and, even more than the others, Jason are attacked verbally and even physically by a puppet whose insights may be expressed terrifyingly but aren't necessarily inaccurate. There's even an act-one coup de theatre during which Tyrone is revealed to have magic powers.

Askins's greatest accomplishment -- in what could arguably be called the best play of the 2014-2015 Broadway season -- isn't that he's imagined Jason and Jerome as bigger than life. He's done that, yes, and bravo to him, but he's been just as creative, just as three-dimensionally human with Margery, Greg, Jessica and Timothy. Margery only hopes her beliefs will get her through her husband's death, but she turns on them by a 180-degree angle when she realizes they aren't succeeding. Greg is a lonely man with a calling that he understands is the right path, and he sticks to it, even when provoked to veer from it. Timothy is an enamored adolescent at a loss in dealing with his urges.

Jessica, the one generally normal person in the group, knows how to remain calm when all others are losing their heads. She's the one (possible spoiler alert ahead) who towards the denouement comes up with perhaps the perfect approach to calming Jason and simultaneously satisfying Tyrone. (The Hand to God puppets are designed by Marte Johanna Ekhougen.)

That's to say, Jessica is the outrightly perceptive figure, but Jason also understands what motivates the others. His problem is that he can only make his harsh accusations via the obscenity-impelled Tyrone. Tyrone represents what Sigmund Freud would call the Id to Jason's Ego. This is still another strategy by which Askins deepens a script that somewhat reiterates the ventriloquist-dummy part of the 1945 film Dead of Night but still remains chillingly original.

Because Askins has written the figures so fully, they need to be played as fully. They absolutely are. Boyer's is the indisputably key performance, but the others, expertly directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, whip up all sorts of subtle character mannerisms that add to the production's unerring perfection.

Carr's Margery travels from repressed good intentions to the fury of a woman acting out needs too long denied. Kudisch's pastor is the sympathetic portrait of a man hoping his ministerial duties will spare not only his parishioners woes but his own -- and having a hard time coping with fading convictions. Oberholtzer gets the slow and unruly Timothy down to the feckless shrugs. He plays a pants-around-ankle sequence with great humor. Stiles's perceptive Jessica with dark hair pulled into two ponytails also blends poker-faced amusement with smarts, especially when towards the end she arrives with a puppet that's attractive to Tyrone.

Contributing to the astonishing Hand to God success are set designer Beowulf Boritt, lighting designer Jason Lyons, sound designer Jill DC du Boff and, certainly, fight designer Robert Westley.

Boritt is so clever about his design with its recreation room that easily converts to several other locales. When first spotted, the painted robin's-egg-blue cinder blocks walls of the rec room are covered with posters plugging religion. Crosses abound, as does a sign announcing "God Listens."

When the second-act lights come up on the rec room, it's been converted into a wrecked room, where the "God Listens" sign is graffitied to "God Listens to Slayer." And that's not the only travesty that earns the changed set big laughs and applause. What's happened to a stuffed "Hello Kitty" doll is a rib-tickling blasphemy.

The truth is, that the Hand to God assault on religion as irrevocable healer both tickles the ribs and gives them a powerful punch.