Theatre Review: Short North Stage’s Blistering Hand To God
Just over a year after closing an acclaimed Broadway run, Robert Askins’ hilarious Hand to God opens at Short North Stage over the weekend in a perfect production directed by Edward Carignan. Irreverent puts it mildly in describing this deliciously scabrous comedy.
This production transforms The Green Room into a brilliantly on-point (courtesy of set designer Bill Pierson) simulacrum of a Lutheran Sunday School where Jason (Danny Turek) is finding a natural aptitude for puppets in practice led by his Mother, Margery (Barbara Weetman), looking for stability after Jason’s father died. The other students are the damaged Timothy (Chad Goodwin), there as his Mother’s in rehab, and witty outsider Jessica (Kate Lingnofski). In the wake of Jason’s father’s death, Pastor Greg (Jonathan Putnam) is finally making a move on Margery, unmoved by his passivity and slimy wolf in friend’s clothing approach. Into this roiling cauldron of damaged people and crushing expectations, there’s a perfect opportunity for the Devil to slip through – in Jason’s hand puppet Tyrone.
Tyrone rapidly escalates from a direct line to Jason’s id - telling Jessica that Jason thinks she’s “hot” and berating Jason’s geeky incompetence – and grows more sinister until he eventually draws blood. The church as a place where broken people come together is at the center of this dark comedy. Margery finally snaps after a lifetime of trying to do what’s expected and never reaching for what she wants until she finally opens to Timothy’s infatuation with one instruction, “Don’t be nice.” These parallel lines weave and overlap, complicating their ways of dealing with the problem and arrive at the knowledge that ultimately saving one’s self is the key to casting this devil out whether you believe in the devil or not.
Hand to God never goes for an easy joke without finding a way to subvert it. Even at its most absurd, it understands that everyone is broken and talks of the use of places we gather in when dealing with that fundamental brokenness. Carignan’s direction is entirely simpatico with the play: every wild, choked-out laugh comes harder because we understand these characters. It doesn’t judge, but it doesn’t let anybody off the hook either. The cast couldn’t be better at executing this mission of simultaneous empathy and degradation. Barbara Weetman has enough gravitas with pain seeping through that you believe she’d take a teenage boy on a gleeful, nihilistic romp but is also desperately trying to hold her family together. The same way Weetman avoids a facile Mary Kay Letourneau, Jonathan Putnam steers clear of a too-easy egotistical, smarmy preacher; he imbues Greg (maybe the least likable character) with a real goodness and humanity he can’t quite shake. Goodwin’s Timothy gains an unlikely amount of sympathy on the well-trod ground of the high school heavy with a sack full of pain by committing to every interaction; I’m still haunted by the way his eyes light up describing what should have been painful interactions.
Danny Turek is an explosion here. Actively convincing us more than once that Jason and Tyrone are separate characters, the latter just happens to have taken up residence at the end of the former’s arm. His rapid-fire switching of voices and expressions is like the first time you watch a virtuoso violin player play two notes against one another. Kate Lingnofski makes Jessica a perfect foil for Turek’s Jason while also making clear she’s her own person. With the best chance of walking out of this Sunday school into a promising future, she’s easy to identify with and drop-dead hilarious. There’s a sequence of puppet sex between the two of them that might be the hardest I’ve laughed in a theater seat.
Hand to God is a show that will make an audience laugh until the walls creak and like all the best comedies has a core of poignancy. It’s hard to imagine a production of this provocative, intense play better than the one we’re lucky enough to have at Short North Stage. Whether you see a show a week or haven’t seen a play in five years, see this.
Hand to God runs through February 26 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit shortnorthstage.org.