In a church rec room decorated with cheerful posters and kiddy craft projects, a chirpy woman named Margery tries to put together a puppet skit to be performed in front of her Texas congregation.
Her young puppet actors include her awkward teenage son, the girl he has a crush on, and a snarly punk with a filthy mouth. As the story unfolds, the characters — including recently widowed Margery and the church’s lonely Pastor Greg — start to reveal their baser instincts. They want to get to know each other, in a biblical sense.
This is the setup for Robert Askins’ scabrously twisted, somewhat troubling comedy, “Hand to God,” which the Alliance Theatre has cleverly situated at Dad’s Garage in the Old Fourth Ward.
The Alliance, whose Woodruff Arts Center home is under renovation, is producing plays at various places around town. Staging “Hand to God” at Dad’s Garage is particularly delicious because Dad’s occupies an old church building.
Perhaps even better news is that guest director Marc Masterson (formerly of the prestigious Actors Theatre of Louisville and now artistic director of California’s South Coast Repertory) has assembled a first-rate ensemble: Wendy Melkonian as the eternally flustered Margery; Ben Thorpe as her son, Jason (and his sock-puppet sidekick, Tyrone); Patrick Wade as the dirty, rotten Timothy; Allan Edwards as creepy Pastor Greg; and Alexandra Ficken as Jessica.
Apparently, there’s nothing quite like a puppet for removing that delicate filter that separates the socially acceptable from the unseemly. For Jason, a young man so uncomfortable in his own skin that he squirms, Tyrone is the mouthpiece for his id, who makes it clear how his manipulater feels for Jessica.
Timothy and Pastor Greg don’t need a mask to hide under. As Greg, Edwards is mealy-mouthed and milquetoast, but as he makes his inappropriate advances to Marge, there is no doubting his intentions. Timothy is less circumspect in articulating his carnal desires.
As Marge’s puppet skit flounders and the situation turns increasingly explicit, Jason and Tyrone verge into Jekyll and Hyde territory, and the tale becomes an “Exorcist” spoof, which is funny until it’s not. Then it’s unsettling, weird and bloody.
Askins is possessed of an astonishing gift: His satirical impulse is spot-on. Watching the deflation of Marge and Pastor Greg is pure sacrilege. What a delight! I can’t say enough nice things about Melkonian, who reveals the many layers of her comedic genius here. Edwards is not exactly a slouch, either.
Thorpe’s Jason is a study in pain. As far as tortured teens go, he is exquisite. Wade’s Timothy gets many great lines, and he pulverizes every single one of them. Timothy is so bad, yet so fun.
Ficken’s Jessica can give as good as she gets, yet compared to the rest of this crew, she seems almost meek. Until she deploys her puppetry talent to try to rescue Jason, that is. In that scene, naughty Jessica makes Kate Monster’s “Avenue Q” bedtime romp seem almost G-rated. Mercy me!
Depending on your point of view, Jason and Marg’s taut relationship may evoke a response that is more horrifying than amusing. Askins’ ability to balance comedy and tragedy recalls, to some degree, the work of Atlanta native Steve Yockey. I mean that as a compliment to both.
As a raunchy vehicle of ridicule and mockery, “Hand to God” delivers. But when it goes too far into the psychological danger zone, it can be a tad uncomfortable for those not ready to confront the emotional damage it dares to lay bare.