As scenarios go, the one about the dummy that takes over the life of the ventriloquist is nearly foolproof. My favorite variation is the old “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episode in which the ventriloquist is revealed to be a life-size doll and the dummy turns out to be a midget.
In Robert Askins’ new play “Hand to God,” which had its Broadway premiere Tuesday at the Booth Theatre in New York, the playwright doesn’t deliver a major twist to the venerable ventriloquist/dummy story, but in act two of this raunchy comedy, he and his able director Moritz von Stuelpnagel do introduce two hand puppets that very convincingly masturbate, perform oral sex on each other and then copulate in a series of strikingly human positions. There’s also a hint of bestiality, because the puppet Tyrone looks like Kermit the Frog and the puppet Jolene is definitely human, with large breasts, which she exposes often. While the story of “Hand to God” proceeds in a most linear fashion, the sex is novel, and the whole shebang ends in a maelstrom of self-inflicted violence that stops the laughter in your throat.
Tyrone and Jolene meet in a church basement because a teenager named Jessica (Sarah Stiles) doesn’t get the response she wants from the very meek Jason (Steven Boyer), who’s also taking the puppetry class taught by his mother, Margery (Geneva Carr). Both Jason and Margery are grieving the death of their father and husband, respectively, and take solace in religious puppetry. For Jason, however, the hand puppet he names Tyrone becomes something more. It’s how he vents what he really feels, and soon the kindly pastor (Marc Kudisch), who also has the hots for Margery, believes that Tyrone might be the devil and needs to be exorcised. No, the pastor is not Roman Catholic, but that doesn’t stop Tyrone from realizing the pastor’s worst nightmare when he crucifies a number of stuffed animals in the church basement.
Tyrone turns devilish very early in the play, which gives “Hand to God” most of its blasphemous humor and drive. It also helps that Askins has created another delightfully irreverent character in the macho classmate Timothy (Michael Oberholtzer), who has no need for puppets since he makes his desires very evident, especially the one to screw Margery, which he does — much to the pastor’s horror and humiliation. Tyrone and Timothy make a great case for unbridled aggression, and Oberholtzer and Boyer, who nearly induces whiplash in his quick transitions from Tyrone to Jason and back, fully realize their roles.
Since Askins possesses such a warped sense of humor, he’ll probably take this as a compliment, but by far the most interesting characters in “Hand to God” are the puppets, not the humans. Except for Timothy, they aren’t that vivid, although Stiles is outrageously droll when it comes to having her hand puppet Jolene service Tyrone.
“Hand to God” is a good night in the theater, but it does not offer the consistently inspired insanity of Christopher Durang’s “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” wherein all the characters rivet us with their individual madness. The big difference, of course, is that Durang is a veteran and Askins, at age 34, is making his Broadway debut. The theater of the absurd (or the ridiculous, the bizarre, or whatever it’s being called today) is in good hands, and the mantle has been passed to very capable hands.