Nick LaMedica, right and Michael Greer in "Hand to God."
By Christopher Rawson / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Yes, “Hand to God” is just as funny as you’ve heard, and if you haven’t heard, you must live too far away from the South Side to hear the gales of laughter. But “gales” isn’t strong enough — make it tornadoes.
‘Hand to God’
Where: City Theatre, 13th and Bingham, South Side.
When: Through Oct. 16; 7 p.m. Tues.; 1 and 7 p.m. Wed.; 8 p.m. Thurs.-Fri. 8 p.m.; 5:30 and 9 p.m. Sat.; 2 p.m. Sun. (Some variations.)
Tickets: $37.50-$69; $15 under 30; CityTheatreCompany.org or 412-431-2489.
Primarily this is because of a demonic puppet, Tyrone, who seems to channel some hellish intelligence, forcing our laughter with his unexpected sallies — again, too weak, make that nuclear explosions — all seemingly beyond the conception of his ostensible operator, the wan teenager, Jason.
On the other hand, there’s nothing beyond human conception, right? Surely our laughter includes a degree of shared deviltry. Not you, maybe, but what about that mild-mannered person sitting beside you who’s hooting with laughter instead of covering his or her ears in disapproval?
Ultimately, though, Robert Askins’ play turns out to be not just a series of increasingly shocking skits, but a very clever play. That’s a species of truth coming out of Tyrone’s bilious mouth, put there not just by Nick LaMedica, the skilled actor/puppeteer, but by Jason, the repressed, unhappy teen.
That’s what you’re forced to consider, that Tyrone really is the voice of Jason, who yearns simultaneously for revenge (intimations of “Carrie”) and for reconciliation (many an after-school special). He seems a victim of demonic possession, but maybe the filth Tyrone spews comes right from Jason’s repressed anger over the death of his father and the behavior of his distraught, grieving mother, who’s torn between doing good by running this church-sponsored puppet group, or bad by screwing the randy teenager trying to get into her pants.
The setting is a Texas church basement, where an uninspired trio of teens has been condemned to play out someone else’s idea of a religious mission. Add Pastor Greg, who has lost his own spouse and has his own needs, and you have a twister of emotional/sexual desires through which the voice of Tyrone cuts like one of those crazed Old Testament prophets, who had repellent mouths on them, as well.
The only flaw in this tasty swirl of comic bile is the inevitable softness toward the end, the hint of a happy ending. But give playwright Askins and gleeful director Tracy Brigden credit, there are further twists to come.
There certainly isn’t any flaw in the presentation. The actors take to their parts as to manna in the wilderness. Mr. LaMedica is persuasive as hurting Jason and Lisa Velten Smith is a whirlwind as his repressed Mom. Each makes a strong claim to be the emotional center of the play (foul-mouthed Tyrone aside), so of course we hope they find common ground, but without so much “awww” factor as to undo all of Tyrone’s deviltry.
Tim McGeever starts out deliciously fatuous as Pastor Greg, but he develops more dimension than we expect. And the two other teenagers are priceless: Michael Greer swaggers comically as Timothy, the sexed-up bully, and lovely Maggie Carr as not-so-nerdy Jessica comes on to Jason as a sexpot with a heart of gold.
Did I tell you about the puppet-on-puppet sex scene? For once we watch the operators as well as the puppets, as much as the puppets, turning the whole thing into an inventive version of group sex.
Kudos to director Brigden for that. Kudos also to Tony Ferrieri for a set much more sophisticated than the drab church basement it first seems to be.
“Hand to God” is like sex, you know? It doesn’t last as long as you wish it would, but it’s great while it does. Leave the kids at home.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-216-1944.
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