You say you hate puppets? That’s okay. They hate you right back.
One puppet, a nasty piece of cotton and metal work that goes by the name of Tyrone, has it in with particular venom for humankind. This manipulative mini-beast is holding toxic court in the penthouse space in Studio Theatre, where his wildly profane truth-telling is the featured attraction of “Hand to God,” a maliciously delicious black comedy about an anxious boy who gives vent to all the anarchic demons of adolescence.
Attached to the hand of the fine, supple-voiced comic actor Liam Forde, Tyrone is offering the breakout inanimate-object performance of the summer. Oh, for sure, this psychopath of a sock puppet gets grand support from his breathing cast mates, who in addition to Forde include Susan Rome, Caitlin Collins, Ryan McBride and Tim Getman.
But get this straight: No one upstages Tyrone. Not if they value their fingers. Or earlobes.
“Hand to God,” born a few years ago in a production at off-Broadway’s tiny Ensemble Studio Theatre, eventually made an unlikely climb to Broadway, where it closed earlier this year after garnering a handful of Tony nominations and running for an impressive 311 performances. The play, directed craftily here by Joanie Schultz, has the potential to be commensurately successful for Studio — possibly approaching the magnitude of its biggest all-time hit, “Bad Jews,” a scalding comedy so popular the company brought it back twice.
Playwright Robert Askins’s handiwork in “Hand to God” is much weirder than anything in Josh Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” and it’s violent to boot; Tyrone might be a mere toy, but he’s not the kind that’s fit in any way for kids. (Get your tykes a babysitter!) The snarling, epithet-spewing Tyrone is alter ego to Forde’s Jason, son of nominally religious, recently widowed Margery (Rome), who busies herself running a God-oriented puppetmaking workshop in the basement of a church presided over by sexually frustrated Pastor Greg (Getman).
Schultz has the inspired idea via superior set designer Daniel Conway of converting Studio’s top-floor black box space into a realistic facsimile of a church basement, down to the pale cinder block walls and church canteen with a roll-up opening. The audience sits on plastic chairs at long cafeteria tables, as the actors cavort in the middle aisle and on platforms at either end of a room adorned with posters of Jesus in postures of piety and benevolence.
“Hand to God,” of course, is anything but. Coming to a boil in the painfully introverted Jason is all the sexual and social insecurity of a boy on the cusp of adulthood, feelings intensified by an overbearing mother barely coping with her own carnal frustrations. The foreboding sense of imminent, irrational explosion — filtered through the vile declarations of satanic Tyrone — seems uncannily attuned to the incivility of the times we are living through in this country. Tyrone might in this case be wired to Jason’s psyche, but “Hand to God” proposes that there’s an evil sock puppet manning the control panel of everyone’s nerve center.
The comedic backdrop of “Hand to God” may be a bit too facile; the Southern accents that some of the actors adopt suggest that these crazy events are occurring somewhere in the Bible Belt, and that renders the proceedings almost too easy for satire. That the actors can, with Schultz’s guidance, adapt to this surreal environment so zestfully is a mitigating factor; they allow you to put aside any misgivings about familiar targets and caricature.
Rome gives a splendid account of a middle-aged woman who hasn’t quite managed to swear off teenage passions herself, and McBride gets just right the wafer-thin bravado of the bad boy with whom she has a fling. Getman and Collins, the latter portraying a girl in the workshop waiting for Jason to notice her, provide dexterous comic support.
Forde is the production’s essential glue, enveloping Jason in an endearing aura of near-panic and Tyrone in the air of unshakable self-confidence that only unadulterated evil can bestow. Tyrone in point of fact is such a convincing evocation of malevolence that he might have you fretting about the actor’s own immortal soul.
Hand to God, by Robert Askins. Directed by Joanie Schultz. Set, Daniel Conway; costumes and puppets, Chelsea M. Warren; lighting, Keith Parham; sound, Matthew Nielson; fight direction, Robb Hunter; dialects, Zach Campion. About 1 hour 45 minutes. Tickets, $20-$65. Through Aug. 7 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit studiotheatre.org.