For One Young Man, an Idle Hand is the Devil's Workshop

Talk to the hand? Give me a suit of armor, first—I’ll need it if the hand in question is attached to Tyrone, the Muppetish-in-appearance-only sock puppet who is both star and villain of “Hand to God,” a dark comedy now open at the Booth Theatre.

“Hand to God” moves to Broadway after earlier stints with MCC and the Ensemble Studio Theatre.

In Brooklyn bartender-cum-playwright Robert Askins’s two-hour send-up of religious zealotry, the teenagers of Cypress, Texas, exist in a hyper-Christian environment where churchgoers spout righteous platitudes. Their beliefs are tested when the puppet Jason has been building develops a sinister and extremely independent personality.

Is Jason possessed? Is he having a psychotic break? Or is he using Tyrone—a nod to the dysfunctional family of “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night”—to say the things he never could? We never find out, but that doesn’t keep “Hand to God” from being a bracingly modern look at the nature of faith.

Steven Boyer, who has been with “Hand to God” from its inception 5 years ago, stars as Jason, a student in a puppet ministry class taught by mom Margery (the marvelous Geneva Carr), who is both mourning the early death of her husband and oblivious to her son’s scars.

In their orbit are a square and self-interested pastor (the spot-on Marc Kudisch, of “9 to 5,” etc.) and two other students: Jessica (Sarah Stiles), who has caught Jason’s eye, and Timothy (Michael Oberhotlzer), an overgrown bully whose contempt for Jason is only surpassed by his affection for Jason’s mom. (All the actors return from last year’s MCC production.)

Boyer so skillfully separates the roles of awkward teen and possessed puppet you can forget you’re watching just one performer. Carr, too, is super-likable as a woman susceptible to bad choices and blind to her son’s struggles: “Chick-Fil-A? You want some nuggets?” is the best support she can muster when Jason shares his fears about Tyrone’s hostility. (Carr and Kudisch are pictured, below.)

There are stand-alone scenes in “Hand to God” that will floor you. Chief among them is a simulated sex scene between Tyrone and Jolene, a femme-fatale puppet Jessica works up in a last-ditch effort to communicate with her classmate. Both actors display remarkable detachment while their “hands” are in the heat of the moment. Appearance-wise, it’s as if Scooter and Janice from “The Muppets” were knocking boots in the middle of Sunday School.

There is, as well, a set revelation mid-way through the second act—think of it as what happens to a church basement when the devil is done redecorating—that is leaving audiences gasping for breath.

Come to think of it, I did a lot of gasping during “Hand to God.” A seduction between reluctant Margery and game-for-anything horn-dog Timothy is fantastically well-choreographed. Later on, the play’s tenor changes during a struggle between Timothy and Tyrone, and I became far less inclined to think of “Hand to God” as a comedy.

Lead producer Kevin McCollum has worked the puppet-circuit before—he helped create “Avenue Q,” which is positively “Davey and Goliath” compared to “Hand to God.” The new play is directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel.

Structurally, “Hand to God” never quite adds up to the sum of its brilliant parts. There are only so many ways we can be told that faith isn’t quite enough, and that we need to find specific ways of dealing with our problems. Much of the dialogue seems designed merely to shock, though it builds with such intensity you may be too busy rolling in the aisles to notice.

Tyrone has stand-alone monologues framing the production that are well-staged bits of theatrical magic. His closing speech examining why we’ve needed to create Jesus left me chilled and unnerved.

“Hand to God” helped me finally see the allure in using a puppet to express feelings. It offers distance from ourselves, enabling us to say what we mean—what we feel—without tripping over the baggage that makes it hard to be a human: Will what I say hurt feelings? Is it morally dicey? Is it perverted? There’s obviously some Tyrone in all of us. Praise the devil he’s found a way to be heard?

“Hand to God,” with an open-ended run at the Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St. Tickets: $67-$137. Call Tele-charge at 212-239-6200.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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