I can’t remember when I’ve been in a theater of people laughing as hard as they were at Jungle Theater’s “Hand to God.”
Robert Askins’ outrageous comedy won’t be everyone’s cup of kombucha — it’s profane, bawdy and extremely skeptical of organized religion — but, if you’re in, it’s a swell reminder of what a pleasure it is to be part of a room full of people who are losing it.
The folks on stage also are in disarray. “Hand to God” is set in a church basement in Cypress, Texas, in a Sunday school puppetry class. (Chelsea M. Warren designed the witty puppets and slightly unwieldy set.) The characters grapple ineptly with some Big Stuff: Recently widowed Margery and her son, Jason, are angry but can’t talk about it. Pastor Greg, who likes Margery, tries using his pulpit as a weapon. Hormonal Timothy spews insults instead of dealing with what’s inside him. Teenager Jessica knows how to express herself, but it’s unclear if she can help the others figure it out, too.
Jason has an outlet of sorts: his foul-mouthed, randy id of a puppet, Tyrone, who seems to have a mind of his own. Both are played by Riley O’Toole, which makes it sound like the actor is giving two performances, but it’s actually more like three. In addition to sweet, confused Jason and hell-on-wheels Tyrone, O’Toole beautifully captures a third piece, the middle ground where boy and puppet react to each other. Jason’s horror and Tyrone’s disdain are so vivid that when another character demands to know whether an evil act was done by Jason or Tyrone, it actually makes sense for a minute. You forget that they’re one and the same.
One sign of a beautifully directed play is when its tone is unique but everyone is on the same page, and that’s evident in Christina Baldwin’s work here. Tracey Maloney has brought subtle layers to many a vulnerable waif, but she sheds all of that in hilarious, needy and fierce Margery. Greg could veer toward evil but, more intriguingly, Kris Nelson locates the hurt in him. Eric Sharp makes sure we remember how painfully isolating adolescence can be. And a tiny moment from C. Michael Menge as Jessica establishes what a thoughtful performer she is: Her inflection and expression on the word “Uhhhh?” take what must appear on the page to be a time-filler and turns it into an early sign that Jessica is the most thoughtful, healthy person on stage.
The characters’ unwillingness to face their troubles is tested by mayhem that includes a bloody brawl and graphic puppet sex in which the puppeteers’ consent is questionable. Early on, they attribute their woes — and Tyrone’s shocking behavior — to the devil. But by the time we reach a coda that was too emphatic in the Broadway staging but works perfectly in the Jungle’s, Askins offers a glimmer of hope. Everyone’s still a mess, but it seems possible they’ll realize no one gets better without taking their gloves (and puppets) off and doing the work.