It is pretty common, especially in Shakespearean productions, for actors to double up on parts. In Fiasco’s Cymbeline, or in Bedlam’s Saint Joan, some members of the cast would hop back and forth between roles in the same scene, using only minor costume changes to indicate the difference. But I have never seen anything quite like Robert Askins’ Hand to God, in which Steven Boyer plays both Jason, the mild-mannered Texan teenager, and Tyrone, the lascivious and violent hand puppet he wears at all times. It is a terrific Jekyll-and-Hyde performance, and Mr. Boyer so fully embodies both these characters that it at times feels like watching some kind of spectator sport as he recites Tyrone’s lines, manipulates the puppet, and plays Jason’s reaction all at once.
Jason has recently lost his father to heart disease and his mother, Margery (Geneva Carr), is slowly unraveling. She teaches a puppet class at her local church, simultaneously fending off the advances of Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch) and her student Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), who has yet to participate because “puppets are for faggots” but keeps attending because he thinks he’s in love with her. Jason, meanwhile, is surrendering to the devilish Tyrone, who channels Jason’s violent and sexual urges in obscene outbursts, in particular his attraction to the Jessica (Sarah Stiles), the only other student in their class.
Though Mr. Boyer’s brilliant but oddly unflashy performance is the centerpiece here, the entire cast is hilarious. Mr. Kudisch proves a solid counterpoint to Tyrone, prattling on in a limp appeal to Margery about his empty arms and “ears made just to hear you cry” before rejection turns him coercive. Ms. Carr, too, has a nice, frenetic energy, while Mr. Oberholtzer’s Timothy is full of Southern twang and adolescent confidence. And Ms. Stiles’ wonderfully deadpan Jessica offers some of the play’s tenderest moments. She is the tame figure of sanity in this tempest, and often positioned above the rest of the characters onstage: when asked why she is taking the class, she replies, “I’m more into Balinese shadow puppetry, but I’ll take what I can get.” Or when Timothy insists on his immature homophobia, she tells him, “You’re so far back in the closet, you’re in Narnia.”
Hand to God is bookended with monologues from Tyrone sans Jason, who offers a history of man in which the “golden age” of shitting whenever you have to go is upended when “some evil bastard figured out many [people] together could kill larger things,” thus inventing civilization and inspiring the “puppet show” of religion and morality. And the play does suggest that, when we are unable to shit wherever we want, we have to rely on the alibi of supernatural forces to articulate a necessary primitivity: Tyrone is both untenable and indispensable, a vulgar force of nature, a devil that allows Jason to mourn for his father and assert his masculinity but that must be destroyed once everybody is ready to resume normal living. And Mr. Askins’ play is so successful because it manages to balance this theory of human evolution with gleeful, vaudevillian raunch. The truth may be crude and painful, but it is also pretty funny as well.
Hand to God runs through January 3rd at the Booth Theatre. 222 W. 45th Street New York, NY. 2 hours. One intermission.