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To make puppet sex funny is easy. To move us with felt-creature coitus takes skill. Liam Forde and Caitlin Collins are due major credit for sharing a touching conversation as Jason and Jessica—acquaintances in the youth ministry of a suburban Houston church—while the alter egos attached to their hands perform unspeakable (but mimable, evidently) acts of animal passion in Hand to God, a multi-Tony-nominated Broadway comedy getting its first regional production as part of Studio’s anything-goes X series.
What’s true of that uproarious scene is true of 30-something Texan Robert Askins’ play as a whole: It’s loud and lewd and irreverent and howlingly funny, but there’s a sympathy to the writing that tempers its pitched godlessness. That’s no small feat when the subject is a possible case of demonic possession and the way this frightening episode ripples through five separately struggling members of Mount Logan Lutheran Church of Cypress, Texas. The playwright, as well as the simpatico cast that director Joanie Schultz has wrangled (including her fellow Chicagoans Collins and Ryan McBride, both in their Studio debuts), lampoon their characters’ frailties but never mock them for their faith.
Because the culture wars reduce the warriors on all sides to lame stereotypes, we keep waiting for Pastor Greg (the ever-reliable Tim Getman, in another one of the needled-nice-guy roles at which he excels) to be unmasked as a fathead hypocrite. “I know you’re a wounded thing that needs to be cared for,” he tells Jason’s mom, Margery, who’s been struggling to hold it together since her husband died some months earlier. But Askins opts for the more surprising choice to make the lonely priest overbearing but ultimately decent. He remains committed to tending his flock even when they don’t seem to like him much.
Pastor Greg is as baffled as anyone when the shy Jason appears to start channeling his angry, horny, aggressive id through Tyrone, the orange puppet he’s made for an upcoming church performance. Has the kid suffered a psychotic break, or is his hand actually possessed like Bruce Campbell’s in Evil Dead 2? There’s a prologue and epilogue that would seem to stack the deck on that question. What’s clear is that Forde handles his dual role beautifully, wearing shock and revulsion of on his face even while lining Tyrone’s voice with menace.
Meanwhile, Margery struggles with a destructive attraction to dumb, swaggering Timothy (McBride)—a few years older than Jason, but still far too young for the type of recreation he and Margery are getting up to. Susan Rome is often cast as the hectoring voice of authority, so to see her playing a character in free-fall is a real treat. Along with game participants Rome and McBride, fight director Robb Hunter deserves a ceremonial set of golden knee pads for the show’s other big banging scene, this one played in the middle of the floor.
Oh, right: Set designer Daniel Conway has made over Studio’s fourth-floor black box into a church activity room, the walls lined with board games, plush toys, and cloying pastel posters bearing evangelical slogans. The audience sits at tables festooned with sock-puppet materials (arrive early and you can build one). An in-the-house concession booth offers baked treats as well as the kind of drinks not served at most daytime church functions—certainly not at the youth ministry. Scenes unfold at stages on three sides of the room and everywhere in between, so there are no bad seats. Like the Devil himself, Hand to God is all around you.
The play runs to Aug. 7 at Studio Theatre. 1501 14th St. NW. $45–$65. (202) 332-3300.