Robert Askins’ “Hand to God” takes place mostly in the basement rec room of a church near Houston.
One of the characters is the pastor, another a recently widowed mother tapped to lead a teen puppetry group called the “Christketeers.” Her introverted son and two other teens have been corralled into joining the troupe, and their first performance at a Sunday service is fast approaching.
But what transpires in “Hand to God,” which is now getting a wildly uninhibited production by GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, is anything but holy.
An Off-Broadway hit that moved on to Broadway success in 2015, Askins’ script explores our better and lesser natures — with the emphasis on the latter. The duality that resides within us all is brought most vividly to life by shy guy Jason (Wesley Slade), whose hand-and-rod sock puppet Tyrone turns into a foul-mouthed alter ego à la Mr. Hyde. The puppet provocateur especially horrifies Jason when he’s in the presence of Jessica (Casey Sacco), the girl on whom he’s quietly crushing.
Tyrone is everything Jason isn’t (or won’t let himself be): confrontational, vulgar, rebellious, openly horny, finally violent. In this world of the faithful, Tyrone is the devil in the guise of a sock puppet.
Jason’s mom, Margery (Margery Lowe), widowed for six months, has a bit of the devil in her too. At first, she seems nervous and needy, eager to please, and determined to make the puppet group work — maybe because it feels like the only thing she has going for her since her overweight, unhappy husband’s death from a heart attack. She rebuffs gentle advances from Pastor Greg (Stephen G. Anthony), telling him she’s not ready to date.
But when bad-boy Timothy (Kristian Bikic), who hangs out with the puppet group while his mom attends a 12-step meeting, allows as how he’d like to get to know Margery on much more intimate terms, the result is seismic.
For director Joseph Adler, who has done another savvy job in staging the play, “Hand to God” is the theatrical equivalent of catnip. The script has serious themes, including loneliness, teens struggling emotionally as they come of age, the tension between principled restraint and the allure of pleasure. But “Hand to God” is also the sort of provocative, in-your-face dark comedy that speaks to Adler and thus to his audiences.
Impeccably cast, the production is most challenging for the actor playing Jason. Slade has to carry on rapid-fire conversations between Jason and his puppet nemesis, who looks cartoonishly innocuous with his big eyes and feathery tufts of red hair but takes the term “bad influence” to new depths. Slade works up a frenzied sweat but makes Jason and Tyrone two distinctly vivid characters, though he could go even further in differentiating them vocally.
Sacco deftly shares one of the play’s trickiest scenes with Slade. Jessica, her busty puppet Jolene on her arm, talks to Jason about just maybe the two of them going to the prom together. Simultaneously, Tyrone and Jolene engage in athletic, multi-position puppet sex that’s far more graphic than anything in “Avenue Q.”
Lowe takes Margery on a real journey from foundering soul to inappropriate wild woman to a mother making a deeper connection with her hurting son. She and Bikic, whose Timothy is a verbal bully with his own cross to bear, play their characters’ absurdist “love” scenes with manic abandon. Anthony, tonally perfect as Pastor Greg, earns his laughs with curses like “son of a biscuit,” and his low-key appeal helps the audience realize that Margery really isn’t in her right mind when she chooses rough sex with a kid over a real relationship.
Also impeccable is the work of Adler’s collaborators: set designer Lyle Baskin, lighting designer Jeff Quinn, sound and music designer Matt Corey, costume designer Ellis Tillman, fight choreographer Paul Homza and puppet fabricator/coach Paul Louis.
“Hand to God” is one very funny play with plenty to say, but a key component of its vocabulary is raunchiness. So audience member beware, but know that you’ll see a strongly realized production of a pithy script.
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If You Go
What: ‘Hand to God’ by Robert Askins.
Where: GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 30.
Cost: $42-$60 (students $15, Friday-Saturday and Sunday matinee excluded).
Information: 305-445-1119 or www.gablestage.org.