Tonight, a rare show opens on Broadway. It’s not another jukebox musical or revival, not another British import, not another movie adaptation. It’s a new American play — which Broadway doesn’t see much anymore, to put it mildly. But this new one by a young Texas playwright is a comedy as raunchy as The Book of Mormon. Plus, it tops Avenue Q’s puppets because this time, that little sock may well be the devil. KERA’s Jerome Weeks spoke with playwright Robert Askins about what possessed him to create such a thing.
In the play, Hand to God, the first time we see teenaged Jason, he’s in a cheerfully-colored church basement with his mother’s Christian puppet ministry. Jason is timid and lonely. But the show they’re prepping for is only a week away, so his mom, Margery (Geneva Carr), pushes him into demonstrating his new sock puppet, Tyrone.
Jason meekly, half-heartedly sings “Jesus loves me, this I know” — and is brutally mocked by Timmy (Michael Oberholzer), the class bully.
OK, so it’s no surprise that pious puppetry is not much fun, especially for socially awkward kids. But playwright Rob Askins insists it was — when he was eight or nine years old, and his mother was indeed running a puppet show for their town church. “My mother was looking for a way to make her mark in the ministry,” he says, “and it seemed like a fun thing to do. And it was. You know, I had a lot of fun doing it when I was younger.”
Askins grew up in Cypress, Texas – once a little town right along Highway 290 between Houston and Austin. His family was one of the German Lutherans who came down from Oklahoma for the lumber and construction opportunities there (it’s not called Cypress for nothing). Askins’ grandfather even built the house he grew up in. Then in the ’80s, oil company execs moved in and thoroughly gentrified it, turning Cypress into one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country.
Even so, puppetry, Askins jokes, could almost seem like the family business — not lumber. His aunt, Sally Askins, teaches costume design at Baylor University. She received her MFA at the Dallas Theater Center — back when it was connected to Trinity University. And Rob Askins says one of his first exposures to big-time, non-sock-related puppetry came when his aunt took him to see a show at the Dallas Children’s Theater — probably Dragon in 1990. He recalls his aunt brought him backstage to meet the show’s giant dragon puppet.
Despite all this, in Hand to God, puppetry, Christianity and suburban life — they all come in for an outrageous, comic beat-down as so much threadbare theater, unable to withstand the shock of puberty, doubt and, well, the devil. Tyrone, Jason’s button-eyed, little Frankenstein, takes over his life by becoming a blasphemous and hilarious sock-terror. He lewdly propositions a female student (Sarah Stiles). He goads young Jason into trashing everything. Tyrone even drives the church pastor (Mark Kudisch) into desperately searching for any historical precedents for Lutheran exorcisms (there were a few, way back in the 16th century).
Amid all this wreckage, an anxious Jason asks the puppet, “Are you — the devil?”
“Are you?” Tyrone retorts.
“I dunno,” Jason says defensively. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, do you think devilish thoughts?”
“I — ”
“Uh, let me get that one for you. YES! Yes, you do!”
“Yeah, but I ain’t done ’em!” Jason protests.
“Oh, you’re right, you’re right. And what,” Tyrone spits back, “have you got to show for it?”
If nothing else, the Broadway production of Hand to God deserves a best-actor Tony nomination for Stephen Boyer, who doesn’t employ ordinary ventriloquist techniques. You can see his mouth move, he makes no pretense that Tyrone isn’t a glorified, demented glove. Yet Boyer makes this lizardy bit of knitting not only a completely separate character but a truly frightening little fiend. There are times when one is convinced Boyer’s left hand is assaulting him, dragging him across the room, trying to strangle him. It’s a physically demanding and daring performance as much as it is a comic tour de force.
So just how autobiographical is Askins’ play? Did he ever have a puppet try to kill him?
“Ripped from the headlines,” he says with a laugh. “Ripped from the headlines. No, I was an angry young man. My father passed when I was 16 – and that threw my world out of kilter. It was very difficult to make sense of the well-meaning and well-adjusted world around me because it seemed as if everything was going to naught. And that engendered a lot of really self-destructive and really dark behavior.”
At Baylor, where Askins studied performance, he drank too much, smoked too much weed. But he eventually made it to New York, where he worked any job he could at the 88-seat, off-Broadway company, the Ensemble Studio Theatre.
“They really provided me the space to fail disastrously. And for me to stop trying to write like Sam Shepard,” he adds. He’s referring to an earlier play, Princes of Waco, which did, indeed, fail as a piece of pseudo-Shepard, tough-guy Texana.
One could easily believe Askins made a Faust-like deal with the devil. He’s written a dozen plays, but Hand to God is only his second ever to be produced. Yet here it is, opening at the Booth on 45th Street. This simply doesn’t happen in the American commercial theater. Hand got to Broadway because four years ago, when it opened at EST, Kevin McCollum — who produced Avenue Q and Rent — happened to see it and nursed it through a second, larger, successful, off-Broadway run at the Lucille Lortel. Of course, it didn’t hurt that, from the first, Hand was hailed in reviews as raucous as The Book of Mormon — with funny puppet sex like Avenue Q.
Yet Askins’ play is actually riskier and darker than both of those musicals. At its center is a damaged family that lost a father. It skids into some dangerous territory for a comedy — a teacher having sex with a minor — and it struggles with what we can only label ‘evil.’
Askins keeps the question open as to whether the puppet is a Jekyll-and-Hyde alter ego of Jason or is truly a devil of some kind. He plays with our doubts. It’s an issue of taxonomy, he explains. Psychosis or Satan: We want to label “the darkness” in human life one thing or the other because that way, we contain it.
“Naming the darkness is not solving it,” Askins argues. “If we had the proper name and the proper model to fit the severity of the problem, we would already live in Utopia. And the split in the character is an attempt to reconcile his slowly rolling, dark understanding of the universe, to reconcile it with a religion that has been fairly bowdlerized. It’s been neutered. Christianity was built at a very tribal and dark time, but this American iteration is stultifyingly simple.
“I mean, this is a religion about nailing a man to a tree, and we forget that.”
Even so, one unusual aspect of Hand to God is that for all its Luciferian mockery of well-meaning Christianity — it’s probably the first Broadway show to give the devil his due since Damn Yankees in 1955 — the Lutheran pastor is not portrayed as a cardboard tool. Ultimately, for all the gleeful profanity here, there’s no easy dismissal of faith.
“One difficulty in the modern, enlightened, atheist take on religion,” Askins says, “is that it ignores the utility and the nurturing of humanity’s best impulses through religion. We paint with a wide brush, and there are good people, good churches, out there, trying to do for the poor, for the lost souls in their communities.”
This is why Hand to God holds real promise for this playwright: Such thoughtfulness actually went into this funny, foul-mouthed piece of felt. Now 34, Askins still tends bar in Brooklyn — at a Tex-Mex restaurant, no less. (It provides a useful, daily lesson, he says, on the distance between myth and reality.) But this same bartender has yet another play opening off-Broadway this month: a kinky Christian comedy called Permission at the Lucille Lortel. He’s adapting a graphic novel for Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B. And he’s flying to LA soon to pitch a new TV series.
And yes, his mother and sister, who also suffered through his father’s death, have seen Hand to God. The experience, Askins says, was an unadulterated joy. They’d given him ‘carte blanche’ to use the family’s suffering — to use it in whatever way he needed to in his play.
“So the ability to turn that pain into something is actually cathartic for all of us,” Askins says. “To hitch a horse to that cart and pull it somewhere. Because now my father’s death helps other people to understand what that moment was like for me, for growing up, for being in Texas in that period of time.
“And that, I think, is healing.”