Even more gratifying than watching the nicely directed, ably acted local production of Hand to God is the pleasure of seeing such a blasphemous black comedy at Phoenix Theatre, where one is more likely to find Dolly Levi making matches for the millionth time.
A co-production with Stray Cat Theatre, Robert Askin’s comic gem continues Phoenix Theatre’s savvy courting of younger, hipper audiences. (They’ve previously presented the naughty proto-Expressionist rock musical Spring Awakening, in partnership with Nearly Naked Theatre and, before it became commonplace to do so, a neat production of wicked tuner Avenue Q.) For Stray Cat, Hand (a 2015 Tony nominee for Best Play) is business as usual: dark, frantic, vulgar, and occasionally hilarious.
Set in a church basement that will raise goose bumps on anyone who ever attended an after-school CCD class, Hand to God brings us wound-too-tight Margery (Elyse Wolf), recently widowed and working through her grief by coaching church kids on the fine art of puppet-making. There’s Jessica (Michelle Chin), intently over-stuffing her puppet’s bosom, and Timothy (Vaughn Sherman), an ill-tempered bully who sneers at everything, especially Margery’s son, Jason (Eric Zaklukiewicz).
Jason has already finished making his puppet, a mop-haired perv named Tyrone, who bellows anti-Christian smears and various vulgarities about Jason’s affection for Jessica, and whom Jason can’t seem to remove from his right arm.
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As Jason — or is it some other force? — becomes increasingly unhinged, the action and comedy surrounding him become more frantic, and director Ron May’s talent for distilling a maniacal skirmish into cogent comedy becomes apparent.
Much of Hand to God plays like an especially ill-disciplined hurricane, and the eye of that hurricane is Zaklukiewicz, whose performance inspires both awe and pity. As mild-mannered Jason and demon puppet Tyrone, he whiplashes between slapstick and fury, a striking technical feat in a sometimes simultaneous pair of performances.
It’s left to the viewer to decide if the boy is possessed by anything other than grief over the death of his father, another neat trick of this mysterious, high-velocity train of a play. Lazy-minded audiences in search of comic diversion will be as happy with Hand to God as those who will enjoy its commentary on what’s rotten about organized religion. Bravo, on both counts, to all concerned.
Hand to God continues through February 18 at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. Call 602-254-2151 or visit phoenixtheatre.com.