Hand to God – Review by Tom Holehan

The deliciously naughty Broadway comedy, “Hand to God”, has found a welcome home at TheaterWorks in Hartford. Robert Askins’ Tony nominated play about an unruly puppet with a mind of his own is packing the house at the spunky theatre where the audience has been groomed to try the adventurous offering now and then. Good for them.

“Hand to God” is set in a modest Lutheran Church in conservative Cypress, Texas where recent widow Margery (Lisa Velten Smith) and her lonely son, Jason (Nick LaMedica) have found a place to explore their creativity. It is in the church’s basement that Margery conducts a religious puppet class whose only participants are Jason, his dream girl Jessica (Maggie Carr) and bad boy Timmy (Miles G. Jackson) who lusts after Margery. Jason is a prized pupil whose own puppet, Tyrone, often does the speaking for him especially when trying to make points with Jessica. It isn’t long, however, before a darker side emerges and Tyrone, who may ultimately be the devil himself, becomes Jason’s stronger personality. This propels Pastor Greg (Peter Benson), who is also trying to make time with Margery, into the role of exorcist at one point as this wacky and occasionally dire and disturbing comedy finds time for questions of faith, morality and parenting.

“Hand to God” is a tricky play to navigate with often jarring and abrupt tonal shifts, so give director Tracy Brigden credit here for getting most of this right. Best of all is the casting of LaMedica whose astonishing vocal changes between Jason/Tyrone all while working the puppet hands like a pair of versatile chopsticks, is a marvel. It’s a herculean undertaken and LaMedica delivers in spades. Nearly as good is Carr who brings a delightful air of sangfroid to her seen-it-all-teen and strikes just the right demeanor during the uproarious second act “puppet sex” scene. You did read that right.

Jackson’s juvenile delinquent has the bad boy bravura down pat and his lewd observations can change in a blink to little-boy-lost mamma’s boy. In the complicated role of Margery, Smith is pushy without always being funny. It’s a broad performance that relies on lots of screaming bordering on southern caricature (all the accents in the show could be toned down a tad). While she has her amusing moments, it is acting without a real core. Even in an outrageous script like this, characters still have to be real so that you believe and care about their outcome. It is especially important in the role of Margery that her reconciliation at the end is truly earned. Right now, as played by Smith, it’s pretty hard to swallow

The projections (featuring Tyrone in a memorable coda) and scenic design by Luke Cantarella are expertly achieved and include an hilarious (and graphic) scene change when the devil takes over that basement classroom. Stephanie Shaw’s puppet design is, of course, crucial as is Robert Westley’s very physical fight choreography. All told, this is a good production of an outlandish but timely play that speaks to issues of faith in revealing new ways. Still, “Hand to God” is not for all tastes. The play is the blackest of comedies and takes an especially grim and bloody turn in act two. It’s often riotous but also fairly filthy. Tyrone isn’t just a cute, R-rated Kermit. He comes from the darkest recesses of the soul. You’ve been warned.

“Hand to God” continues at TheaterWorks in Hartford through Sunday, August 26, For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at 860.527.7838 or visit: www.theaterworks.org.

Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: tholehan@yahoo.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.