You haven’t really lived until you’ve watched sock puppets have orgiastic, porn-movie sex.
That’s pretty much the climax of Hand to God, a belly-achingly hilarious satire about religion, morality, and hypocrisy playing now through April 30 at Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Suzanne Roberts Theatre on Broad Street.
East Texas playwright Robert Askins’ Tony-nominated 2015 Broadway hit uses a delightfully demented mélange of live actors and puppets to mount a frontal, take-no-prisoners assault on Middle America. See Askins discuss the play in a video interview posted on YouTube.
Set in Askins’ hometown of Cypress, Hand to God is about a recently bereaved Texas teen named Jason who uses a sock puppet to express the confusing mess of rage, grief, guilt, and lust that has gripped him since his father’s death.
Soon enough, the craftily decorated white tube sock he’s christened Tyrone takes over, Jekyll and Hyde-style, and proceeds to blast everyone around Jason with bilious insults, including his mom, Margery (Grace Gonglewski, PTC’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), and the family’s Pollyanna of a pastor, Greg (William Zielenski, PTC’s Trumbo).
Through Tyrone, Jason even manages to have his first sexual encounter -- albeit with another tube sock.
Witness that love scene, and your life won’t be quite the same.
Though it will have you in stitches from start to finish with its absurdist story line and delectably profane irreverence, Hand to God isn’t exactly profound. It flounders when it tries to deliver a serious message in its concluding minutes. Director Matt Pfeiffer and the superb cast focus most of their energies on the funny bits. It’s a wise move.
Aubie Merrylees (Stupid F*%# Bird at the Arden) delivers an inspired turn as Jason and Tyrone. (The role earned Steven Boyer a Tony nod in the Broadway production.)
A member of People’s Light making his PTC debut, Merrylees is electric as he swiftly maneuvers around the stage while simultaneously working his puppet and delivering two sets of lines. There are uncanny flashes when you believe Tyrone is a separate person as he hugs Jason, punches him, pulls him by his hair, and throws him across the room.
Merrylees’ performance reaches great heights in his scenes with his neurotic, repressed, super-religious mom, played with crackling crazy energy by Gonglewski. A five-time Barrymore Award-winning Philly theater favorite, she grounds the play.
The mother-son conflict explodes in a puppetry club for teens that Margery has organized at their church. The tiny group includes the troubled, shy -- and weirdly hypersexualized -- Jessica (Alex Keiper, Lizzie at 11th Hour) and Timothy (Matteo Scammell, PTC’s Detroit), a perpetually horny, aggressively homophobic bully. Scammell gives an impressive, physically imposing performance while Keiper downplays her presence until the sexual denouement. That's when she explodes onto the stage, armed with a female sock puppet who lusts after Tyrone. It's great stuff.
Askins creates situations that undermine the moral training his characters have been given by family, school, and church. Jason, for one, has been taught his entire life to reject and repress his darker desires. His father's death challenges everything, taxes him until he's ready to burst. Tyrone becomes his potty-mouthed savior, freeing him from guilt.
Margery also bursts out of her inner prison when she finds herself on a collision course -- of lust and desire, of repulsion and hatred -- with the other two men in the group. (Which one does she lust after? I won't tell.)
Basically, it’s all a big ugly mess.
Then comes the exorcism.
I loved Hand to God -- until its clumsy conclusion. Askins’ satirical knife slices and dices so well, I expected him to soar when it came to its serious message, to the actual meat of the matter.
Askins’ message is clear enough. Religious guilt cripples human consciousness even as it civilizes us. But it’s delivered in such a clumsy, unsophisticated, and folksy way, it’s hard to take seriously.
Hand to God. Through April 30 at Philadelphia Theatre Company, Suzanne B. Roberts Theatre, South Broad and Lombard Streets. Tickets: $15-$69. Information: 215-985-0420 or PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.