Review: "Hand to God" at TheaterWorks

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Tara Kennedy

  • Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle / ATCA

I always appreciate TheaterWorks’ selections being edgy and unconventional, and their latest offering, Hand to God, meets the mark.  All the advertising warning about its content is there for a reason; this is not your grandmother’s Sunday matinee. Hand to God is outrageous beyond measure; so much so that at times it’s difficult to catch your breath either from laughing or sheer awe. What makes this play unique is its layering of profane absurdity; just when you think its ungodly cup hath spillith over, more impious antics flow forth.

Jason (Nick LaMedica) is a young man living in a town outside of Houston, Texas with some issues. Take his mother, Margery (Lisa Velten Smith), for instance. She is trying to find her way after losing her husband/ Jason’s father six months ago. After failing in other areas at the church (a Church Lady she is not), she is trying to lead a puppet-making class in the church basement, through the generosity of their pastor, Greg (Peter Benson). The class only has two other pupils: Timmy (Miles G. Jackson), the school bully who has it in for Jason, and Jessica (Maggie Carr), the millennial girl next door, who Jason has a crush on. But things start to get strange when Jason’s puppet, Tyrone, begins to act out in ways that appear to be outside of Jason’s control. Tyrone’s actions are vile, gruesome, and dangerous. Is Tyrone the devil in the shape of felt and yarn? Or is there more to this demented doll that is of an earthly origin?  

While the playwright, Robert Askins, attempts to add a deeper meaning about religion’s role in our society with its opening and closing monologues, I feel that this is not the play’s primary function. This work is meant to shock and unsettle its audience, much like the artwork of Mapplethorpe and Serrano. In fact, a woman in the rest room after the show used that very word to describe how she felt: unsettled. For others (like me), it isn’t disturbing at all, but more of a cathartic opportunity to mock conservative Christians in their hypocrisy and lack of spiritual motive.  

Director Tracy Brigden says in her notes, “…the real secret to [Hand to God]’s success is the truthful heart at its core, proving that the very best comedy comes from the most honest places.” I couldn’t agree more with her statement. When I saw Hand to God on Broadway back in 2015, it was the sincerity of the actors in their portrayals that made it so hilarious. Despite the insanity on that stage, I believed the performers - they were real.   

Therefore, I find Brigden’s note strange. Some of the TheaterWorks’ production’s actors were not authentic at all; Ms. Smith and Mr. Benson both relied on hyperbole and stereotype in their early scenes. So, when the audience is expected to sympathize with Margery and Pastor Greg later, that empathy is difficult to muster because we don’t believe them. Mr. Jackson suffers from the same problem, but I believe that is due to how the character is written; I had the same problem with the actor in the Broadway production, although Mr. Jackson’s performance was a little more over the top.      

On the flip side, Mr. LaMedica and Ms. Carr give us genuine performances. Mr. LaMedica is a marvel on that stage. Essentially, he makes unhindered schizophrenia look effortless... and I mean that as a compliment. Having to play counter characters simultaneously takes immense concentration and discipline. Hats off to Robert Westley for his excellent fight choreography; I imagine Mr. Westley doesn’t have many occasions where he choreographs an actor fighting with himself. Ms. Carr’s performance as the sardonic Jessica is perfectly droll and smart: an authentic, hysterical performance. And when it’s her turn to be part of the puppet show, she (and her puppet) bring the house down. These two actors make the show for me, being the most authentic and therefore the funniest.           

Why the stark difference in the actors’ performance style? Good question. I see that it would be easy to pigeonhole the characters in this play, and that may be the fault of Mr. Askins’ writing and character development. I think that is the case with Timmy’s character, as there isn’t much to go on with that role to make it more than a conventional bully teenager. However, based on seeing the Broadway production and then this one, I’d have to say that it is some of the performers and the director that have fallen through in this production, which is a shame.

On a positive note, I did enjoy Luke Cantarella’s set design. It captures the Lutheran church basement well and it’s clear that he and his team had fun creating the “hellish” basement for Act II; there’s a lot of fun detail in the scenic mayhem. 

So, if you’re a traditonal sort, I recommend that you go see Oliver! at the Goodspeed.  But if you’re looking for unhallowed, hilarious havoc on stage, Hand to God delivers hand(s) down.