Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Also see Richard's review of Daniel's Husband
Jason (Michael Doherty) is recently fatherless. His mother Margery (Laura Odeh) is dealing with her widowhood by throwing herself into her church job, leading a youth Christian puppetry group that meets in the church basement. It's not a particularly popular activity, drawing only Jason and two other teens: Jason's unspoken crush Jessica (Carolina Sanchez) and the angry, violent Timothy (Michael McIntire)who also just happens to have the hots for Margery. If you think you can imagine how twisted a path this setup can travel, think again, for Hand to God delves into some of the darkest corners of the human psyche. Mix Jason's grief with your standard teenage angst, then top it with the mythology of demons and possession he receives from Pastor Greg (a brilliant David Kelly in the quietest role in the play), sprinkle liberally with small-town Texas attitudes, and you have a recipe for some of the blackest, craziest fun you will ever have in a theater.
I first saw Hand to God during its Broadway run in 2015 and was singularly unimpressed. I wrote then that the play was better suited to a smaller house, and that it "fizzles when it should sizzle like the flames of hell." Well, director David Ivers has turned up the heat, and in the friendly confines of the Peet's Theatre this production is an inferno.
The trouble starts when Jason's puppet Tyrone begins to take on a life and personality of its own. Jason seems a quiet, gentle lad, but Tyrone is pure male id, and Jason seems powerless to prevent his foul-mouthed utterances. When Tyrone really cuts loose, you're left wondering if this is all simply a delusion of Jason's, or if Tyrone might actually be a demon, come to possess the troubled boy. (Jason's mother, coincidentally, exhibits a parental possessiveness that puts one in mind of Gypsy's Rose. "Come through for mama," she says, pleading with Jason to ply his puppetry talents on the church stage.)
The cast is almost perfect. As Jason, Doherty gives a fevered performance that combines excellent puppetry with undeniable rage, yet he knows just how to milk the quieter comic moments. The crazy sexual chemistry exhibited by Odeh and McIntire as the May-September romance (well, maybe April-October) brings some of the biggest laughs of the evening. The hilarity of their seduction by destruction (goyou'll see what I mean) is topped only by the puppet sex that makes that portrayed in Avenue Q look like something from the Disney Channel. In fact, pretty much everything about this production is close to perfect. Jo Winiarski's set establishes the church basement aesthetic with all the right touches, Meg Neville's costumes are spot-on (especially Pastor Greg's khakis and Wal-Mart windbreaker), and the sound design by Joe Payne includes heavy metal versions of gospel classics "Jesus Loves Me" and "Amazing Grace."
Clearly, Hand to God is not for everyone. If profanity and blasphemy offend your sensibilities, run far, far away. But given that Hand to God is playing at so many theaters across the country this season, you won't be able to put too much distance between yourself and this dark comic delight.
Hand to God runs through March 19, 2017, in the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Shows are Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Wednesday and Sunday at 7:00 p.m., and 2:00 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Additional matinees at 2:00 p.m. on February 16 and March 16. Tickets from $69-$97, with discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets are available online at www.berkeleyrep.org, or by calling the box office at (510) 647-2949.