“Hand to God,”
You Can’t Beat
by TONY VELLELA
George Burns once told me that he and Gracie learned to be prepared when they were introduced to people, who would then laugh riotously at almost anything Gracie said. When someone is pre-conditioned to expect ‘funny,’ then just about anything will get a laugh. It’s all about expectation. And though it certainly does not need to be thought of as a detriment, and though it certainly is so true that the Robert Askins romp “Hand to God” is chock full of great laughs, there are some admittedly short stretches, and dry-spell pockets that keep it from being what’s being heralded as a Second Coming for theatre comedy.
Maybe that’s appropriate, because the proceedings are under the snarling control of a decidedly other-worldly, Satanic-inspired sock puppet. The cotton, yarn and button-built Tyrone has taken up residence on the left hand of Jason, a shy, disturbed teen-age son of Margery, an addled, middle-aged church lady. As a gesture to help her handle the grief of losing her husband recently, Margery’s Pastor Greg has set her up with a teen puppet ministry. He’d much rather stick his hand not up inside a limp sock, but up inside Margery’s skirt. For her part, she saves that pleasure for the hunky eighteen-year-old Timothy, who comes to Bible study to moon over Margery. A decidedly dim bulb in many departments, he does know how to lock the door, lift Margery up onto a desk, and have a quick one in the church basement meeting room.
Rapid-fire mono-dialogues ricochet between the actual Jason and the puppet Tyrone. Bold defiance, heresy, physical violence, blood-letting and wicked wordplay roll out at breakneck speed, giving this remarkable comedy, well, legs. Jason’s withdrawal from the world, and the pervasive lost-boy aura that engulfs him, seemingly from the poisoned relationship he had with his now-deceased dad, and from his mother’s utter failure to relate to him, all combine to render Jason out-of-control. Or, rather, an easy victim of this evil puppet, who overtakes Jason’s mind. The results are brimming with both hilarity and horror. Anyone of a certain age may recall the sweet innocence of the Shari Lewis hand puppet Lamb Chop. They may also recall several versions of the story line [think "The Twilight Zone," or maybe "Outer Limits"] wherein a ventriloquist’s dummy gradually takes over his master’s mind, with murderous consequences. Tyrone would be the issue if they were to mate.
Askins cleverly weaves in an homage to the Bud Abbott/Lou Costello ‘Who’s On First?’ classic routine. He appropriates the type of foul-mouthed screeds of the residents of Avenue Q that jolted us when they first hit town a few seasons back [and have taken up residence off-Broadway]. Askins even choreographs a plethora of sex acts between Jason’s Tyrone, and the compliant girl puppet who is owned by the teen group’s only female [a winningly deadpan Sarah Stiles]. Her mission is to satisfy Jason/Tyrone’s urges and squelch his anger. There’s enough story line to connect the bursts of bad behavior and unmet needs to keep it from careering off the rails. It’s telling that the human characters have not much more dimensionality than the puppets. And if you’re fine with not having anyone to root for, the laughs will come – accompanied by lotsa blood, perhaps in honor of the Grand Guignol traditions that Askins seems to be saluting. And if you’re of a mind to confirm the guidance of some other-worldly entity to this raucous comedy’s success, look no further than its slow-and-steady rise through the ranks of the New York stage world: Askins and company, under the astute guidance of its director Moritz von Stuelpnagel, have slowly, steadily ascended from small readings to developmental workshops, through Ensemble Studio Theatre’s artistic director Bill Carden’s inclusion in its 2011-2012 season, and then on to the 2014 support of Robert LuPone, Bernie Telsey and Will Cantler at their MCC Theatre. Whatever else this piece has bestowed on it, there should be a special category award for the dedication of its entire team, on and off stage, in particular giving early cast members the opportunity to display the selflessness that has helped it rise through the ranks. [There's some sorta pun in there somewhere, giving a wink and a nod to such a 'rank' story.]
By the bye, as Tyrone nearly manages to cause his host Jason to suffer a mild amputation, one wonders if Jason has fallen victim to a very real neurological condition known as somatotopagnosia, a dissociative disorder where a person, as a result of a neurological ‘insult,’ such as a stroke, comes to believe that a part of his body no longer belongs to him, and seeks to have it removed. Yeah, I know – not the usual motivation for a comedy. From the get-go, “Hand to God” overcomes some glaring short-cut writing, assuming that you’re primed to laugh. Tyrone, without a visible Jason to be seen, delivers an opening monologue that pulls you in. He returns at the end, to stake out his claim on the proceedings. What a little devil !
How satisfying it is to report that there are no short-cuts in the crafting of “Fun Home.” It’s not always a compliment to state that something seemed ‘familiar.’ That often means that it’s derivative, that its elements remind you of that person or that place – one of the cardinal sins of short-cutting. Instead, the ‘familiars’ that “Fun Home” evokes, without the aid of types of people, sounds of voices and musical phrases or place-names, are memories, states of mind, emotions, moods and feelings.
The specifics in this musical masterwork have been put/pulled together by Jeanine Tesori [music] and Lisa Kron [book and lyrics], based on the graphic novel by cartoonist Alison Bechdel. She subtitled her autobiography “A Family Tragicomic,” in which she reveals the stages of her life, maturing into an insightful cartoonist whose lesbianism informed how she saw the world, and how the world saw her.
Tough stuff, that. In part, it’s because Bechdel’s father, Bruce, who taught English in the small western Pennsylvania town where she grew up, and operated the town’s undertaker establishment, had his own parallel biography unfolding, secretly – a penchant for sex with boys and young men that may have triggered his death, a possible suicide. [The children have pared down the description of their father's funeral home occupation, tagging it a "Fun Home."] The interweaving of these two lives, through decades of discovery, is glowingly achieved because Tesori ["Violet," "Caroline, or Change"] and Kron ["Well"] are gifted, sensitive story-tellers, keen to reveal what’s behind the facts of a character’s life, and in this case, two characters’ lives.
Director Sam Gold has broadened his palette, formerly focused on dramas/straight plays ["The Flick," "The Mystery of Love & Sex"], displaying a genuine affinity for musicals that do not fit the conventional musical theatre mold. The Bechdels’ multi-layered lives demand acute attention to the non-verbal cues that stitch together the easily-misunderstood or the stereotypical, all the short-cuts that lazy producing rely on. And in this case, Gold has dug deep into the talent pool to locate just the right person to represent the Bechdel family, and in particular, the role of Alison, subdivided into three periods of her life. Judy Kuhn’s mother, Helen, seems to know just when to make her presence known, and just when to recede. As the adult Alison, Beth Malone realizes how much her younger selves have shaped the grown-up. On the tightrope balance between teen years and emerging college adult, ‘Middle Alison’ Emily Skeggs finds the sweet spot that allows for the missteps and happy events that open up Alison to her future self. And as ‘Small Alison,’ the gifted, bravely-nuanced Sydney Lucas carries her young self through one of those iconic ‘theatre history’ moments. In a heart-wrenching number titled “Ring of Keys,” Lucas chronicles how the pre-teen tries to make sense of her ill-defined but touchingly real discovery of mutual identity she shares with a lesbian delivery woman.
All three versions of Alison enjoy the benefits of having their outer and inner selves play off the same actor portraying the father, Bruce. In yet another demonstration of his versatility, Michael Cerveris lets out some of this man’s tortured personality, and like a fishing rod, reels it back in again when it starts to get too close to endure. Watch Cerveris let his postures, his behavior and his fluid physicality silently speak – hand-wringing when too-true revelations burble up to the surface, awkward little dance steps as the family inhabits a mock Partridge Family homage, uneven gestures of generosity when trying to seduce one of his young male targets. Recall the defiance in the upward-thrust of Sweeney Todd, as portrayed by Cerveris, and you can understand how and where he can inject such decisiveness into such tentative movements.
Ben Stanton’s lighting design projects empty picture frames on the stage floor, reminding us that this is a family that does not ‘fit’ into any conventional depiction of ‘family.’ And similarly, the Kron/Tesori score does not ‘fit’ into any conventional set of categories that usually define a musical theatre creation. They’ve all come together to craft and build a work that dares to move beyond even the most recent rule-breaking works, such as ‘Next to Normal,” as it sacrifices none of its powerful stories in its ability to invite you in – all the way in – to these lives.
Keeping to a roughly-every-twenty-years cycle of Broadway productions, the D.L.Coburn two-hander “The Gin Game,” returns to the boards this fall, starring Cicely Tyson [age 90] and James Earl Jones [he's 84.] It had its premiere in 1977, starring Hume Cronin and Jessica Tandy, followed by its first revival in 1997, with Julie Harris and Charles Durning. I saw both of those productions, have a great respect for the tender yet sharp-edged story of two retirees in a nursing home, and eager await its next incarnation . . . If you never quite got around to seeing the Tom Jones-Harvey Schmidt musical fable “The Fantasticks” during its last 42 years, you will get another chance. An anonymous donor has come forth to extend its run at the Snapple Theatre Center . . . And if you didn’t quite make it to the opening night event for the 13th Annual Downtown Urban Theater Festival on May 12, the festivities continue through May 30th, at HERE. Visit www.dutfnyc.com for the details about the seventeen new stage works being presented.
It’s that time of year, when graduations propel some folks into the career-search mode, and catapult others into the June wedding mindset. Suppose you’ve gotten it together enough to consider a life upon the stage – what’s out there to help? The Fifth Edition of Brian O’Neil’s “Acting as a Business – Strategies for Success,” from Vintage Books – Random House is a very good place to start . . . and from a different perspective, check out Lisa Mulcahy’s unsentimental “The Actor’s Other Career Book – Using Your chops to Survive and Thrive.” This Allworth Press edition walks you through the many ’stages’ you need to learn about before you make that big decision . . . and if you and your theatre-folk friends will be gathering to view the Tony Awards broadcast on Sunday, June 7, pick up the latest collection of Tony Awards data from Heinemann, “The Tony Award” . . . and if you’ve decided to re-live some sugar-coated memories of sitcom days gone by, you can furnish your new digs using Diana Friedman’s “Sitcom Style,” from Potter Publishing. It’s subtitled “Inside America’s Favorite TV Homes,” and lets you duplicate the interiors of more than a dozen popular T-V shows, from “Frasier” and “The Nanny” and “Murphy Brown,” to “All in the Family” and “I Love Lucy.” Why not, after a hard day at work, come home to some real nostalgia-lovers’ dream home?
TONY VELLELA wrote and produced the PBS documentary series about theatre, “Character Studies.” His play, a Best Play winner at the New York International Fringe Festival, is published by Playscripts. ArtAge published his “Maisie and Grover Go to the Theatre.” He recently accepted a staff position presenting a variety of theatre-themed sessions at the 92nd St. Y [visit 92Y.org for details]. His new series of live, in-person conversations there, “Tony Vellela Talks Theatre with . . . ,” will next feature Susan Stroman on June 1. Two more one-day in-depth explorations of iconic works are on his calendar: “The King & I” on May 19, followed by “Chicago” on July 14. These sessions feature segments from his exclusive interviews with theatre greats, including Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera, Bebe Neuwirth, James Naughton, Ann Reinking, Debra Monk, Barbara Cook, and many others. His interview pieces and feature articles on the performing arts have appeared in Dramatics Magazine, Life Magazine, Rolling Stone, The Christian Science Monitor and dozens of other outlets.