Since it's impossible to stay on top of absolutely everything on view from one year to the next in burgeoning New York City theater, I'm only now catching up with Robert Askins's Hand to God, at the Lucille Lortel, after its three sold-out runs during the 2011-12 Ensemble Studio Theatre season. So coming upon an astonishing play featuring an astonishing performance by Steven Boyer -- both of which have already won Obies -- was delayed for me but surely not in any way lessened.
The delight at encountering such excellence -- including Moritz von Stuelpnagel's direction and the playing by other cast members Geneva Carr, Marc Kudisch, Michael Oberholtzer and Sarah Stiles--is so extensive that it's a challenge to know where to start distributing the praise.
Maybe a toss of a coin will help: heads for the play, tails for Boyer's contribution.
It's come up heads for Askins's play, one of the best on the subject of religion I've ever seen -- and therefore one of the most genuinely religious plays I've ever witnessed. The setting is a church basement in a semi-rural Texas town where Margery (Carr) is attempting to make progress on a puppet program that will be performed by her timid son Jason (Boyer), troublemaker Timothy (Oberholtzer) and nice girl Jessica (Stiles), the three of them forming The Christketeers.
Getting nowhere with the trio and trying to make sure mannerly but persistently on-the-make Pastor Greg (Kudisch) gets nowhere with her, Margery has her hands full. There's foul-mouthed, on-the-make-as-well Timothy and disturbed Jason, whose left hand and forearm are literally full of Tyrone, a furious puppet. Anyone familiar with stories of dummies that take over their manipulators -- the 1946 Dead of Night, starring Michael Redgrave, is a precursor -- knows about these situations.
Jason, a shy lad uneasy with Jessica's well-meaning advances, is slowly sacrificing his autonomy to the fire-and-brimstone-spouting Tyrone. ("Tyrant" is more like it, of course). At the same time, Margery and Greg are losing their hold on societally prescribed composure. The major suspense is whether Jason can be saved from his possessing demon, but what will happen to the others remains at stake as well.
Jessica, a savvy young miss introduces a partial solution to Jason's predicament by way of a female puppet as randy as Tyrone. And if the sight of puppets having a wild sexual encounter while their presumed handlers engage in rational discourse doesn't make spectators laugh themselves silly, there's something wrong with them -- not with the superbly imaginative Askins.
Notions such as "demons" and "salvation" are at the core of Askins's beautifully disguised treatise. Having begun his spell-binding work with a prologue during which Tyrone delivers a brief history of good and evil, the playwright goes after the catastrophic damage religion has done over the millennia by perpetuating the belief that external forces are responsible for the sins of man and woman. He contends that created deities (God, Jesus, Lucifer) mustn't be held accountable. What's required is that men and women understand they must take responsibility for their own actions.
Askins sees repression as one of religion's worst ramifications. Of the five Hand to God (what an apt title!) characters, all but Jessica have repressed their feelings. It's that repression and the rage resulting from it that's the true besetting sin, Askins insists.
Margery, whose husband died two years earlier, is holding back her fury, and when she unleashes it in a couple of libidinous tussles with Timothy, she disgraces herself. Pastor Greg tamps his feelings down and can only begin to let them free. Timothy, who initially seems to edit nothing, is actually acting out because he doesn't know how else to keep his amorous impulses towards Margery under wraps.
The most repressed of the lot is Jason, which is why his dilemma is endlessly juicy. It's certainly why no one with anything less than the brilliance Boyer brings to the role could even begin to take on the assignment. Not only does he have to play the monumentally repressed Jason, but he repeatedly must switch in an instant to Tyrone's gravelly rage. While Tyrone rules Jason's left hand -- i. e. Boyer's -- Boyer holds in his right hand the sticks that manage Tyrone's long furry arms. (Marte Johanne Ekhougen designed Tyrone with his wide mouth full of shark-like teeth.)
Boyer is expert at executing all this. He knows the role and its inordinate demands inside and out by now, but that only begins to explain his uncanny aptitude. When someone this breath-taking arrives, a reviewer automatically has an impulse to recall the last time he was so startled by a relative newcomer's performance. What came to my mind was Al Pacino in Israel Horovitz's 1968 stunner, The Indian Wants the Bronx.
Everything about this Hand to God return is well-done. Carr may have her best role yet as the troubled Margery, and she doesn't let the woman down. Stiles, one of the funniest young actors around, brings smart-girl charm to Jessica. Her copulation puppetry is a howl. Oberholtzer's Timothy is a great blend of the comic and the menacing.
And is the highly rated Kudisch ever rated highly enough? In the past year or so, he's been an outstanding Claudius in the Yale Rep's Hamlet, a top-notch Tartuffe in the Westport Country Playhouse production of the Moliere comedy and one half of the entertaining Holiday Boys. (Jeffry Denman is the other half). He's got leading-man good looks and character-actor skills, and once again he employs everything he's got (okay, he doesn't sing this time) for everything it's worth.
Beowulf Boritt designed the clever set, the walls of which bend from time to time to reveal other environments. As the basic surrounding, they're covered with posters and drawings dedicated to the glory of God and his only begotten son. Later they're covered with Tyrone's graffiti and serve as yet another opportunity for belly laughs by patrons who relish the iconoclastic. Sydney Maresca's costumes, Jill BC Du Boff's sound and Jason Lyons's lighting (one dying-bulb effect in particular) add to the immense pleasure.
As Hand to God races along, fragments of things like The Exorcist, Carrie, The Book of Mormon and Sigmund Freud's Civilizations and Its Discontents spring to mind. Yet, at the end of the day, it's its own extremely special thing.