This morning, I woke up confused. And a little disappointed. It’s because of this.
I’m confused because it doesn’t seem Diane Snyder saw the same play I saw. Or, perhaps she was reviewing a play she wished she was seeing. Whatever the case, I’m troubled because I generally praise Time Out New York for reviewing a play for what it is, rather than what they wish it might be.
Specifically, Ms. Snyder wrote:
“This wickedly twisted premise unfortunately strays far from the path of logic, putting shock ahead of sense.”
So many great plays have done this. Absurdist gems like Rhinoceros, Pterodactyls, Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You, and The House of Blue Leaves paved the way for the smart hilarity that is Hand to God.
But maybe, Ms. Snyder thought she was seeing a play by Greenberg or Simon.
I don’t know.
The problem is: no one reading the review in Time Out New York will know how sorely the review misrepresents Hand to God. Readers will think it is a traditional comedy about a teenage boy trying to get over his father’s death. Sure, this is the plot, but more importantly, it’s a brilliant, absurdist morality play revealing how people manifest mythology, like the devil and sin. Any time puppets appear on stage they are a metaphor for something larger. If Ms. Snyder focused on the play’s raucous metaphors rather than its literal storytelling, perhaps she would have seen what I saw.
Here’s my perspective:
Steven Boyer knocks it out of the park with a career making performance. His nuanced performances as both Jason, the teenage boy who recently lost his father, and Tyrone, a possibly devil-possessed puppet, should win awards and earn him work. It’s a tour de force in the truest sense of the phrase. Through him, the funniest fight with one’s own hand since Evil Dead and the hottest puppet sex since Avenue Q currently grace The Ensemble Studio Theatre‘s main stage. The best thing Ms. Snyder wrote was that his performance is “a big hallelujah.” Amen, to that.
Geneva Carr is magnificent and slightly frightening as Jason’s tortured, widowed mother, knowing she doesn’t need the consoling, security of a man her own age. She wants the release of a teenage boy’s cock. She wants to feel the pain. If ever someone literally took the advice of Peaches, it is this woman.
Pastor Greg, earnestly played by Scott Sowers, grounds the play. He is that audience member asking “WTF?!” We accept everything onstage because this guy doesn’t get it either. In the end, it’s his blind faith and moralizing that is the butt of the play’s joke.
Bobby Moreno was born to play the part of Timothy. He has one objective: to get laid. Sometimes, characters only exist to make us laugh, push the story forward and offer some of the best physical comedy you can find in the theatre. This is Timothy’s role, but Bobby brings pathos to this single minded boy. And he’s funny as hell.
Megan Hill embodies Hand to God‘s ingénue, Jessica, with awkwardness, sweetness and a simmering sexuality. She’s the smartest of the bunch and the voice of reason. She makes us understand love, connection and sincerity and isn’t found in a book or set of rules, dead fathers or socks shoved onto one’s hand. These joys are discovered in other living human beings willing to turn the rock over and see a beauty no one else understands.
Then, there’s Tyrone. Oh, Tyrone. Like so many ids who’ve come before him, Tyrone is the embodiment of young Jason’s desires. He’s everything Jason wishes he could be. Jason doesn’t want to admit it, and he doesn’t like it. But the venomous words Tyrone spits at other characters and the audience are deep truths. And, as we all know, the devil speaks the cold, hard truth. He has since the beginning. And he does again here in the form of the potty-mouthed Tyrone.
Orchestrated with deft precision by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the hilarity of his mad-capped crew rarely lets up, but when it does, the simple offerings of human connection are never overly sentimentalized. Some of the best physical comedy this season is in this production, and Moritz deserves credit for bringing this brilliant play to life.
Like his predecessors before, Robert Askins’ wrote a new absurdist gem in Hand to God. He joins a young crop of smart and bizarre playwrights, like Leah Nanako Winkler and Josh Conkel, who create uniquely theatrical experiences bent on forcing us to examine our humanity and the silliness of it all. These voices must be encouraged and appraised for what they are, not what reviewers wish they were. They create outlandish scenarios that serve as metaphors for the overly sentimental, stuffed-up, class-driven realism passing for plays these days.
It isn’t experimental theatre. It isn’t kitchen sink. It is absurdity its best, and it’s a departure for The Ensemble Theatre. Artistic director William Carden should be praised for having the guts to produce it.
Okay. I’m done.
Please, don’t consider this a review. An open letter to Diane Snyder of Time Out New York? Maybe. An endorsement? Definitely.
In the end, I’m just a playwright, hoping to help another schmoe who’s in the same boat. Rob’s a brother in theatre, and he deserves for people to see his work for what it is.
Go see Hand to God before it closes on November 20th. It’s wicked good.