Hand to God Proves Puppet Sex Is Still Funny

Lest there be any doubt, raunchy puppet sex is still remarkably funny. It was funny in the 2003 Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q; it was funny in the action comedy movie Team America: World Police; and it is once again terrifically amusing in the Alley Theatre’s production of Robert Askins’s Tony-nominated play Hand to God. But unlike Avenue Q’s graphic but still sweet sex between smitten newbie lovers and the hilarious shock factor of the explicit triple-X-rated sex in Team America, the puppet sex in Hand to God is more of a welcome break. A terribly humorous respite from a show about a boy in emotional distress that at times feels sophomoric, without wit and motivationally indulgent.

Way before the sex, though, there is simply the puppet, Tyrone, a rudimentary, flame-red-haired, google-eyed sock creature with movable spindly arm-like appendages. We meet him in all his foulmouthed, cynical glory (think a cross between Oscar the Grouch and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog) during an opening monologue in which he lays out his version of the origins of the world we live in. A world where humans once roamed free and happy until they organized into societies and religions, delineating between right and wrong, bad or good. A reality in which any behavior not deemed acceptable by the group was labeled evil. Where devils are created to scare people away from doing whatever they please.

At least that’s what we think Tyrone was trying to tell us. It was a strange opening for sure. Lines were repeated, threads seemed to be lost, possible improvisation was happening and an abrupt yelling of “cut” by Tyrone himself seemed to be his way of putting the monologue out of its misery. At intermission there was much discussion among those who had previously seen the show as to whether this opening scene was a rewrite or a bona fide screwup.

Either way, the show must go on, and so it did, onward to Jason (the inexhaustible and comically agile Steve Pacek), the undisputed star of the show. Jason is hurting. His father has just died of a heart attack, leaving him alone with his mother, Margery (Elizabeth Bunch delivering an overly acty performance), who seems more interested in making sure Jason participates in her Christian puppet group than tending to his emotional needs. Socially Jason is also a mess. His sweet, nerdy, quiet ways aren’t winning him any points with his fellow puppeteer and crush, Jessica (Emily Trask showing great straight man prowess). He should be able to turn to Pastor Greg (a solid Michael Brusasco) for help, but it was under the minister’s care that Jason’s father let his health deteriorate. Worse still, the delinquent bully in the puppet group, Timothy (Jay Sullivan playing cool but dumb in perfect tune), torments him incessantly, reducing his already battered sense of self.

And that’s where Tyrone steps in. Unable to vent his pent-up anger, Jason, with Tyrone literally on hand in a superlative physical performance, tells the others exactly how full of shit he thinks they are. With his expletive-filled and no-holds-barred assaults, Tyrone becomes the devil Jason needs but can’t bring himself to be. Or perhaps Tyrone isn’t simply a projection of Jason’s unspeakable inner anger. Could it be that the nefarious sock puppet is in fact truly the devil himself? After all, Tyrone is just as tyrannical and cruel to Jason as he is to everyone around him. For every time Tyrone calls Margery a bitch or comments on Timothy’s small dick personality, he also reminds Jason that he’s weak and a loser in an effort to goad him into action. And then there’s that pesky problem in which every time Jason tries to remove Tyrone from his hand, the puppet attacks viciously, making it impossible to render him inanimate.

And so goes the conceit of Askins’s play. Man versus puppet, our need to express difficult emotion versus what others expect from us and yes, lots and lots of very comedic bad behavior in the process. It’s a great premise that works only some of the time.

Let’s start with the positive. Without a doubt, the greatest joy of this show is watching Pacek, under Mark Shanahan’s physically robust direction, commandeer and give voice to Tyrone. With only a mouth to operate and two sticks to move arms, Pacek brings Tyrone to life so acrobatically that it’s impossible not to believe man and hand puppet aren’t two distinctly individual characters. Even when Tyrone is at his degenerate worst, all we need to see is his puppet self, wrapped around Jason’s head, manipulatively stroking his hair pre-attack, and we can’t help but laugh in the face of certain doom.

An unexpected and squirm-inducingly funny scene between Margery and Timothy is also a slam dunk win under Shanahan’s direction. This one needs to be left a surprise for all those who see the show, but suffice it to say that the refrain “koo koo kachoo Mrs. Robinson” may have a new meaning. And yes, the aforementioned puppet sex has us rolling in the aisles. However, far more interesting (and frankly less derivative) are the few more serious moments in Askins’s narrative. Possessed or projecting, Jason is a wounded soul. This is a kid begging for someone to understand his pain. So when we’re given a quiet and intelligent front row to these emotions, as when Pastor Greg refuses to speak to Tyrone and insists on grilling Jason about his lack of happiness, Askins’s messages hit home in far more meaningful ways.

Unfortunately, these few home-run scenes and eloquent moments are overshadowed by predominantly puerile humor and disappointingly low-hanging-fruit comedy for much of the play. This is a show in which uttering the words "bitch" and "boner," or phrases like "milky vagina" and "candy ass," is considered the utmost in comic genius, as though we’ve never heard those words spoken aloud before. In fairness, it may be that lack of prudishness makes me immune to the tee-hee value in this kind of dialogue, but c’mon, folks, it’s 2016; are we that sheltered? Haven’t we all watched at least one cable show?

Complicating things further is the distinct sense that Askins has written this play first, foremost and predominantly for his own purpose and agenda without consideration of what truly works in the show. It’s no secret that Hand to God was written to mirror Askins’s own life growing up near Houston. His father died when he was a teenager, his mom was involved in her own ministry and Askins struggled to find a way to deal with his anger. But what really comes through in this play is his derision of religion. Well, it comes through in segmented moments that don’t really feel germane to the play as a whole.

We encounter the religious contempt in the opening monologue and again in an epilogue that reinforces Askins’s distaste for our reliance on saviors and saintliness. But little to nothing is said about Godly belief during the play itself. Jason is not rebelling against church doctrine or discipline; he is rebelling against an absent mom, a bully and his inability to share his anger. In fact, no one (save the pastor) seems committed at all to Christ in the show. Even when Margery vandalizes church property in two distinct ways, we aren’t that fussed since we never believe it matters to her in the first place.

Raging against the Church and raging against your anger may have felt like the same thing to Askins, growing up in the environment he did, but for those of us watching his work, it seems like he’s squished two differently motivated shows into one play, and we wind up confounded as to why they need to be joined at the hip. Jason's creating an evil alter ego hand puppet (who may be the devil) to deal with his pain would have had just as much impact as one that half-heartedly embodies heresy.

Yet in the end, there’s great puppet sex. Like really good. Can all be forgiven for a chance to see and laugh hysterically at perky naked puppet breasts fondled live onstage? Is a puppet hand job worth sitting through too many juvenile erection jokes and oddly superimposed religious dissent? Can we move past the bawdy humor and the shock value to truly appreciate the important lesson of knowing how to speak your own truth no matter how unfaithful it may be?

Maybe yes, maybe no. In the end, perhaps your appetite for this show comes down to your relationship between you and your God, or lack thereof, and the devil you already know. No matter what you believe, it’s probably advisable to leave all kneesocks at home, just in case.

Hand to God
Through September 18 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas, 713-220-5700,
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman