I’m convinced that a special place awaits me in heaven because, feeling duty-bound, I went to see the play “Hand to God” not just once, but twice. Heaven is germane here: Not a single one of the play’s characters, despite the title, will get near the place. Well, maybe the teenage girl among them, but only if the pearly-gated ticket takers are letting in the least vile.
“Hand to God,” now in its final laps at Philadelphia Theatre Company, is the low-class Texas tale of a teen-age boy named Jason (Aubie Merrylees) whose dad recently died. Jason and his mom (the wonderful Grace Gonglewski, who deserves much better) are at loose ends in the aftermath. Mom is finding her salvation at a church project, where she’s encouraging her son, plus a girl (Alex Keiper) and an arrogant boy who has the hots for her (Matteo Scammell) to make sock puppets that glorify Jesus by singing hymns and the like. The church’s preacher (William Zielinski) is happy to have the mom head this project — he has the hots for her, too, although under Matt Pfeiffer’s direction, that particular desire is strangely dialed down.
If Pfeiffer was worried about offending people with an errant preacher — on Broadway a couple seasons back the holy man came on far more strongly to the mom — that would be a laugh richer than any I got from the show. Two kinds of people were in the audience the night I saw “Hand to God” last week. The first thought it was a laff-riot — they chuckled about it at intermission and stayed afterward to play with sock puppets at a table in the lobby. Once there, they laughed again. If you fit in that group, you don’t need some critic to validate your taste.
Then there were the people in the second group. Several sat beside me and just to the rear. They squirmed or sat motionless. They left at intermission. Or worse, they left noisily during the second act, when Jason’s puppet became a bullying devil and attached itself like Super Glue to his arm, causing the sort of church destruction and violence that makes a devil proud. And sex, too. For the couple to my rear, the heavy puppet sex that ensued was their exit cue. The problem with reviewing the audience as well as the play is that you can never be sure of motive in the audience. I assume the couple fled because they were either really grossed out or incredibly turned on. As a matter of good will, I vote for the latter.
The first time I saw Robert Askins’ play was on Broadway, and it struck me as a tour-de-force of trash: industrial-strength indulgence (to my memory, the puppet sex was at least twice as long as it is at Philadelphia Theatre Company), stunningly potty-mouthed, creepy in its netherworld cynicism. The characters, I thought, were morons — who would want to spend time with them? As they become more and more desperate, it’s harder to care about them or how they end up. There’s a lot of declaration — even lecturing — in “Hand to God” and little of it is clear. What exactly is it saying? If we all have a little of the devil in us, yet choose not to fight it, that’s hardly breaking news. But I’m not sure that’s the theme, either.
On the bright side, the puppetry on Broadway was precise and delivered with a punch, and the idea that a puppet could take over your life was intriguing. The puppeteering, the best thing about “Hand to God,” is directed here by master puppeteer and puppet creator Robert Smythe and is perfect in the on-stage arms of Merrylees and Keiper.
After first seeing “Hand to God,” I began to read about — and enter into conversations with – people who felt passionately one way or another. It turns out that the play encourages discussion I’d never have imagined, probably because I wrote it off. Some people believe it mirrors the morality plays of yore: good versus evil in a fight to the finish. Some people think it’s no more than a tantalizing over-the-edge laugh. Some people (yes, here I am!) think it’s silly — occasionally funny junk whose sneering bad taste stays with you long after the final curtain.
At least Pfeiffer directs it at Philadelphia Theatre Company to be peopled by humans, and not the cartoonish portrayals of Broadway’s version. This makes for a “Hand to God” that seems less gratuitous and far less extreme. And quite right for many theatergoers who’ve seen it and are commenting. And still not for me.
—“Hand to God,” produced by Philadelphia Theatre Company, runs through April 30 at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Broad and Lombard Streets. 215-985-0420 or philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.