Hand to God, a regional euphemism for “I swear,” turns out to be the perfect handle for this tall and demented Texas tale of a boy and his sock puppet. What seems to be arriving March 10 at the Lucille Lortel is the age-old contest between good and evil. Jason is a diffident lad of 15 who is coping with the recent death of his father. Jason’s alter ego is a malevolent sock puppet named Tyrone that has gone into takeover mode.
From this kinky Jekyll-and-Hyde Jr. premise, it’s reasonable to suspect playwright Robert Askins was at an impressionable age when he saw either A) Dead of Night, the creepy British classic where ventriloquist Michael Redgrave is dominated by his wooden dummy or B) Magic, William Goldman’s latter-day rip-off in which another ventriloquist, played by Anthony Hopkins, goes mad for the same reason—on a bigger budget.
Instead, Mr. Askins was influenced by Sam Shepard. “The direct thematic antecedent to this play is actually True West,” he said in a recent interview. “When I saw it, I got the impression Mr. Shepard was talking to himself—that it’s not two brothers but a divided individual.” (There’s actually sense in this: In True West’s Broadway revival in 2000, director Matthew Warchus had John C. Reilly and Philip Seymour Hoffman constantly switching roles.)
From that, Mr. Askins took his theory a few more loops. “I thought: Wouldn’t it be great if we had a sort of theatrical convention that would let us acknowledge two voices are part of one body? And then: Wouldn’t it be cute if they were puppets?”
This was an easy reach for him. His mother was a puppet minister at St. John Lutheran Church in Cypress, Texas, a suburb of northwest Houston, and he assisted, picking up the rudiments of hand puppetry by acting out Bible stories in Sunday school class.
Jason and his mom, Margery, are in exactly the same fix as Hand to God begins. Then comes Mr. Askins’ darkness: Meek and mild Jason proves no match for the vulgar, demonic Tyrone, and Margery becomes sexually involved with a teen in her puppet ministry.
“As both lose control of the situation, things get funnier and more dangerous,” Mr. Askins said. “Not knowing what’ll happen next was one of the great joys of writing this play. I had a basic idea what I wanted, but at every point, the characters surprised me. I’d be writing and writing, and it was like, ‘Oh, God! You’re going to do that?’ To be continually delighted by people who inhabit a world you’ve created is thrilling.”
The play’s edgy eccentricities surprised not a few critics, too, and earned extra innings during its initial 2011 run at the Ensemble Studio Theater. There was talk at the time of moving it, but this has only come to pass now, courtesy of MCC Theater.
“I thought the reviews sensitive and well realized,” said Mr. Askins. “But audience response was what we really went for. People coming out of the show were positive. We only had one walkout in the EST run, and there’s intense stuff in this show, but it’s all balanced by the humor and heart. It’s definitely not shock for shock’s sake.”
The centerpiece of the show is an Obie-winning, star-making turn by Steven Boyer, giving the devil his full due as the viciously raucous Tyrone while clinging to Jason’s innocence. ”Just the fact that I get to play two characters simultaneously and that they’re in dialogue with each other the whole time—it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done before or probably will ever do again,” he said. “I can’t imagine playing a role that would come close to how this feels. It’s really two roles at the same time, so the amount of concentration is incredible.”
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel’s proudest moments come when Mr. Boyer is in full flight as Jason/Tyrone. “I pretty much love anytime Steve is just talking with the puppet, having a one on one,” he said. “You forget he’s doing a monologue. He is playing both roles and really talking to himself, and you forget the puppet isn’t alive. It’s one performer playing both roles. Then, you remember all at once, and there’s this rush of what you’re really seeing. The level of theatricality to it is riveting.”
It hasn’t been an easy show to pull off. “You have to marry a lot of technical elements. There are tons of fight choreography and blood effects. Puppetry requires a lot of choreography, and there are plenty of technical challenges that go into it.”
Mr. Boyer’s dexterity in the puppet scenes came naturally to him, according to the director. “Steve doesn’t have any formal puppet training, but he has done a couple of shows before involving puppets—notably, Nick Jones’ Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, which was done at Ars Nova—and I’ve done a few puppet shows myself, so between the two of us, we came up with a vocabulary for Tyrone.”
The only other original EST cast member returning to Hand to God is Geneva Carr, who plays Mr. Boyer’s mother. They have subsequently co-starred twice, both times as lovers—in a recent reading of a new play called Van Gogh and the Hipsters and last spring at Theater for the New City in another Nick Jones play staged by Mr. von Stuelpnagel, Trevor, about a violent chimpanzee.
Psychologically, the weirdo world of Hand to God is not far down the dirt road from Greater Tuna. “America’s a pretty strange place, and a lot of times, that doesn’t get acknowledged in theater,” said Mr. Askins. “We see a lot of stuff about upper-middle-class people in Brooklyn and L.A., but there are some really strange sorts of social cul-de-sacs in America, and they’re just beginning to be explored. Now, we’ve got people from stranger places getting access to New York City.”
His own access to New York City came via Youngblood, EST’s collective for emerging playwrights under 30. It ushered Mr. Askins into the local spotlight first in 2010 with Princes of Waco and recently delivered to EST another bizarre Texas comedy, Year of the Rooster. According to its author, “Waco was about a kid whose father just died, encountering on his way out of town a petty thief and a drunk in a cruddy bar and entering a life of trouble in an attempt to rebuild himself as a human being.”
Next up is another twisted religious sex farce that will definitely inflame the fundamentalists. “There’s a weird subsect of Christian relationships that takes a passage from Ephesians literally—‘Wives submit to your husbands as if he were the Lord, your God,’ Ephesians 25:5—so this husband and wife set rules, and when the wife breaks the rules, he spanks her. I call it C.D.D. (Christian domestic discipline).”
Unlike his first two plays, it won’t feature a vulnerable, fatherless youth finding his place in the world. “My father died when I was 16,” said Mr. Askins. “Losing your father at the age I lost mine opens you up to radical reinvention. There’s a real rudderlessness to your life. Searching for identity takes you down lots of rabbit holes. My plays are usually about rabbit holes I tried to crawl down to find myself.”