“Hand to God," currently one of the most-produced plays in the U.S., is a gloriously smart prism of paradoxes.
In 1963, the head honchos at Pulitzer Prize headquarters made an infamously stupid decision — they decided to reject “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” for an award, despite the urging of its theater jurors. (Instead, the board opted to give no Pulitzer for drama that year.)
At the time, Pulitzer board member W.D. Maxwell, also editor of the Chicago Tribune, dismissed “Woolf” — probably one of the greatest U.S. literary works of the 20th century — as nothing more than “a filthy play.” History, Mr. Maxwell, begs to differ.
How fast do you think that prim old newspaper editor is spinning in his grave, now that “Hand to God” — a gut-wrenching tragicomedy with two “damn”s, 33 (expletive)s, 61 (expletive)s and some puppet sex — is one of the most-produced plays in the U.S.?
Probably fast enough to power the small-town-Texas church basement where it’s set.
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So-called “filth” aside, “Hand to God” (by Texas-born playwright Robert Askins) is a gloriously smart prism of paradoxes: It rips into sanctimonious Christian hypocrisy, but never takes condescending cheap shots at its true-believer characters. The script can be breathtakingly funny and heartbreaking at the same time. And it’s so wonderfully lewd that its best exchanges can’t be printed in a “family newspaper” such as The Seattle Times, even though it’s built around the raw truths of familial love and rage.
But with jokes. Lots of jokes.
Jason (the brilliant Ben Burris) is a mild-mannered teenager who spends many hours in that Texas church basement, attending a Christian puppeteering class led by his mother, Margery (Sunam Ellis). Margery was recently widowed — her tight, forced smiles and preternaturally chipper manner hint at deeply repressed grief.
Jason has surlier classmates: bad-boy Timmy (black clothes, bondage-style leather neck choker, provocative but not as witty as he thinks) and cypher Jessica (brown boots, tattered denim shorts, the archetype of the small-town girl with a slutty reputation who, it turns out, is the smartest and sanest person in the room).
In the first scene, as Jason earnestly sings “Jesus Loves Me” with his puppet, Tyrone, Timmy (Arjun Pande) snarls: “Jesus loves you in your (expletive).” Jessica (Hannah Mootz) witheringly snaps back to Timmy: “You’re so far back in the closet, you’re in Narnia.”
Meanwhile, both Timmy and the milquetoast Pastor Greg (Martyn G. Krouse) are secretly trying to seduce Margery. Her husband has only been dead for six months, and she seems both shocked and enlivened by the attention.
It’s clear from the beginning that this church basement is a powder keg ready to blow.
Enter Tyrone, with a (figurative) Zippo. Tyrone is Jason’s puppet, who suddenly develops an id of its own, speaking for Jason’s darkest desires.
Is Tyrone possessed by the devil? Is he an outlet for Jason’s own pent-up rage? Nobody seems to know — but when Jason tries to rip him apart and throw him away, Tyrone bides his time, jumps on Jason’s arm while he’s sleeping and growls “You pull some (expletive) like that again, I’ll cut off your balls.” Jason believes him.
Tyrone won’t leave Jason’s arm, but becomes an aggressively macho father figure. “I want you to go back to that church,” Tyrone insists. “I want you to tell them what (expletive)s they are. I want you to make Timmy bleed. I want you to (expletive) Jessica. I want you to toughen the (expletive) up.”
Jason squirms: “I don’t want to have to hurt anyone. I want to be kind and respectful to women.” Tyrone is not pleased. The havoc that follows — puppets versus humans, humans versus humans, puppets doing things to each other that would give W.D. Maxwell the vapors — is bloody, bawdy and distressingly hilarious.
The cast, directed by Kelly Kitchens, expertly surfs the play’s demanding line between broad characters and nuance. As Margery, Sunam Ellis swings from chipper church lady to lust-drunk dominatrix to shame-filled church lady in a few short minutes (depending on who’s coming in and out of the church-basement door).
But Burris as Jason/Tyrone is the show’s mercurial and brilliant star. (Burris also spent the past year building all the show’s puppets.) Jason is the lamb, Tyrone is the wolf and Burris has to play both in scene after scene, his face talking to his hand. The rest of the cast makes an excellent supporting team, but Burris gives his dual performance as if he were, well, possessed. (His bio in the program ends with: “Tyrone would like to thank no one.”)
The New Yorker described a 2015 production of “Hand to God” as “‘Sesame Street’ meets ‘The Exorcist,'” which is a snappily convenient way to frame the play, but the basic questions it asks are more troubling: What happens when people shed their thin veneer of propriety and just start telling the truth? What if “he’s possessed” or “she’s sick” are just easy evasions from hard truths?
What if the scariest things in the world aren’t remote, malevolent forces, but the things we do to ourselves (and each other) with our own two hands?
They might sound like trite questions, but they’re enduring ones, from the Bible to “Hamlet” to “Virginia Woolf.”
They’re also scary ones. “Filthy” even.
“Hand to God” by Robert Askins. Through June 3; Seattle Public Theater, 7312 W. Green Lake Drive N., Seattle; $17-$34; seattlepublictheater.org