The new play “Hand to God” follows in the fine Broadway traditions of poking fun at religion and playing with puppets. It has drawn comparisons to “Book of Mormon” because, for a play set in a religious school and featuring a pastor, it holds nothing sacred, and “Avenue Q” because it has puppets doing naughty things (the puppet sex in particular must be a direct quote from that 2003 Tony Award-winning musical). The performance of Steven Boyer in the dual leading role of Jason (the person) and Tyrone (the left-hand devil) is truly remarkable. And somehow, felt stockings spouting R-rated truths never get old. It’s our endless capacity to be shocked and titillated by things that outwardly appear to be innocent but betray an inner mischief, like when little kids curse.
But as delicious a performance as it is, “Hand to God” takes a murky stance on where the devil lives. At times, it feels like Tyrone is the physical manifestation of the inner turmoil Jason is facing as he grows up and grapples with being abandoned by his father – Tyrone as a mask that gives him permission to exorcise his inner demons. But there’s a supernatural element to the show as well, and bookended monologues by the puppet hint at divine possession, suggesting that evil spirits lurking about can inhabit vulnerable people.
So which is it? Is Jason responsible for his actions or not? What is “Hand to God” trying to say about our own agency in fighting through life’s challenges how does it see religion’s role in fueling and exacerbating those struggles? Not that it has to come down on one side or the other, and nor should it resort to sermonizing (that would be painful), but in its portrait of self-destruction and the search for redemption, “Hand to God” seems to be lacking a discernible guiding gospel.