Tonight, a rare show opens on Broadway. It’s not another musical, not another British import, not another movie adaptation. It’s a new American play — which Broadway doesn’t see much anymore, to put it mildly. Broadway these days, the saying goes, is where plays go to die. But this new one by a young Texas playwright is a comedy as raunchy as The Book of Mormon. Plus, it tops Avenue Q because this time, its sock puppet may well be the devil. KERA’s Jerome Weeks spoke with playwright Robert Askins about what possessed him to create such a thing.
In the play, Hand to God, the first time we see teenaged Jason, he’s in a brightly-colored church basement with his mother’s Christian puppet ministry. Jason, played by Stephen Boyer, is timid and lonely. His mom, Margery (Geneva Carr), has to push him into demonstrating his new sock puppet, Tyrone — the show they’re prepping for is only a week away. But when Jason meekly sings “Jesus loves me, this I know,” he’s brutally mocked by Timmy (Michael Oberholzer), the class bully.
This does not make puppets look like much fun. But playwright Rob Askins insists they were — when he was eight or nine years old, and his mother was running a puppet show for their town church. “My mother was looking for a way to make her mark in the ministry,” he says, “and it seemed like a fun thing to do. And it was. You know, I had a lot of fun doing it when I was younger.”
Askins grew up in Cypress, Texas – right along Highway 290 on the way between Houston and Austin. His family was one of the German Lutherans (Missouri Synod) who came down from Oklahoma to the town for the lumber and construction. Askins’ grandfather even built the house he grew up in. Then in the ’80s and ’90s, oil company execs moved in and turned Cypress into one of the wealthiest areas in the country.
Puppetry, he jokes, could almost seem like the family business. His aunt, Sally Askins, teaches costume design at Baylor University. She received her MFA at the Dallas Theater Center — when it was connected to Trinity University through DTC founder Paul Baker. And Rob Askins recalls one of his first exposures to big-time, non-sock-puppet puppetry came when his aunt took him to see a show at the Dallas Children’s Theater — probably Dragon in 1990, back when DCT performed at El Centro downtown. His aunt brought him backstage to meet the show’s giant dragon puppet.
Despite all this, in Hand to God, puppetry, Christianity and suburban life — they come in for a major, comic beat-down. Tyrone, Jason’s button-eyed puppet, takes over his life — everyone’s life — by becoming a blasphemous and hilarious terror. He propositions a female student (Sarah Stiles), spews insults at the class bully. He goads Jason into trashing everything. Tyrone even drives the church pastor (Mark Kudisch) into desperately searching for any historical precedents for Lutheran exorcisms (there were some, early on).
So just how autobiographical is Askins’ play? Did he ever have a puppet try to kill him?
“Ripped from the headlines,” he says with a laugh. “Ripped from the headlines. No, I was an angry young man. My father passed when I was 16 – and that threw my world out of kilter. It was very difficult to make sense of the well-meaning and well-adjusted world around me because it seemed as if everything was going to naught. And that engendered a lot of really self-destructive and really dark behavior.”
At Baylor, where Askins studied performance, he drank too much, smoked too much weed. But he eventually made it to New York, where he worked any job he could at the 88-seat, off-Broadway company, the Ensemble Studio Theatre.
“They really provided me the space to fail disastrously. And for me to stop trying to write like Sam Shepard,” he adds, referring to an earlier play of his, Princes of Waco, which did, indeed, fail as a piece of pseudo-Shepard, tough-guy Texana.
Askins has written a dozen plays but Hand to God is only his second ever to be produced. It got to Broadway because four years ago, when it opened at EST, Kevin McCollum — who produced Avenue Q and Rent — saw it and nursed it through a second, larger, off-Broadway run at the Lucille Lortel. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the play was hailed as raucous and as obscene as The Book of Mormon. Plus, it has puppet sex like Avenue Q.
But Askins’ play is actually darker than both of those. At its center is a damaged family that lost a father. It skids into some truly dangerous territory for a comedy — sex with minors — and it struggles with what we can only label … evil.
Askins keeps the question of whether Tyrone is merely a Jekyll-Hyde alter ego of Jason’s or is truly a devil of some kind an open question until the very end. He plays with it, and us, and — no spoiler alert — actually offers something of a third choice. It’s a problem of taxonomy, he says. Psychosis or Satan — we want to label “the darkness” because that contains it.
“Naming the darkness is not solving it,” Askins argues. “If we had the proper name and the proper model to fit the severity of the problem, we would already live in Utopia. And the split in the character is an attempt to reconcile his slowly rolling, dark understanding of the universe with a religion that has been fairly bowdlerized. It’s been neutered. Christianity was built at a very tribal and dark time, but this American iteration is stultifyingly simple. I mean, this is a religion about nailing a man to a tree, and we forget that.”
Yet one somewhat surprising aspect of Hand to God is that for all its gleeful, Luciferian mockery of religion — this may be the first Broadway play to give the devil his due since Damn Yankees in 1955 — the pastor is not portrayed as a cardboard fool. Ultimately, for all the profanity here, there’s no cheap, easy, dismissal of faith.
“One difficulty in the modern, enlightened, atheist take on religion,” Askins says, “is that it ignores the utility and the nurturing of humanity’s best impulses through religion. We paint with a wide brush, and there are good people, good churches, out there, trying to do for the poor, the lost souls in their communities.”
This is why Hand to God holds some real promise for this playwright: Such thoughtfulness actually went into this foul-mouthed piece of felt spewing drop-dead insults. Now 34, Askins still bartends in Brooklyn — at a Tex-Mex restaurant, no less. He feels it constantly provides a lesson in the distance between myth and reality. But this same bartender has yet another play opening off-Broadway this month: a kinky Christian comedy called Permission at the Lucille Lortel. He’s adapting a graphic novel for Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B. And he’s flying to LA soon to pitch a new TV series.
And yes, his mother and sister have seen Hand to God. The experience was an unadulterated joy, Askins says. They’d given him ‘carte blanche’ to use the family’s suffering after his father’s death, to use it in whatever way he needed to in his play.
“So the ability to turn that pain into something is actually cathartic for all of us,” Askins says. “To hitch a horse to that cart and pull it somewhere. Because now my father’s death helps other people to understand what that moment was like for me, for growing up, for being in Texas in that period of time.
“And that, I think, is healing.”
Stephen Boyer and Sarah Stiles in a scene from the Broadway production of Hand to God.