Possessed puppets have been fixtures in American entertainment for over a century. Spunky, snappy ventriloquist dummies and other puppets with minds of their own have turned up in vaudeville acts, TV shows (“The Twilight Zone,” “The Shari Lewis Show,” “Soap,” “Sesame Street,” “The Simpsons”), feature films (“Magic”), and more recently, Broadway’s “Avenue Q” (currently reincarnated Off Broadway).
Now, the art form is taken to new heights of hilarity — and new depths of depravity — in MCC Theater’s “Hand to God,” about wayward teens in a Christian puppet ministry somewhere in Texas, currently on the boards at the Lucille Lortel Theatre.
Written by Robert Askins, the demented, devilish comedy originated at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in 2011. Not only has its director, Moritz von Stuelpnagel, been retained for this version, but also the supremely gifted leads. Steven Boyer is divine as Jason, who’s created a willful sock puppet named Tyrone (Boyer won the Obie for his performance). Geneva Carr portrays his unhinged mother Margery, who heads the puppet group.
The supporting cast is no less impressive. Michael Oberholtzer is exceedingly menacing as hormonally fuelled Timothy, a sullen bully bent on seducing Margery. Sarah Stiles is Jessica, Jason’s nerdy crush who builds a bodacious puppet of her own. An imposing Marc Kudisch (“9 to 5: The Musical”) is the arrogant Pastor Greg, who, after Margery rebuffs his advances, demands that the flailing puppet group put on a show the very next Sunday.
Puppet master Boyer fluidly jumps back and forth between the meek, baffled Jason and vile, visceral Tyrone, deftly manipulating tiny puppet arms and felt facial expressions to bring him brilliantly to life.
“You pull some shit like that again, I’ll cut off your balls,” Tyrone growls after Jason attempts to destroy him.
Not that Tyrone is the only one with the foul tongue. During puppet practice, when Jessica accuses Timothy of being a closet case, he counters, “See if you can taste the gay when I nut in your mouth.”
“Hand to God” has had plenty of time to work out the kinks, and it shows. At nearly two hours with intermission, this is a razor-sharp production that zips along at a fast clip.
The set, by Beowulf Boritt, perfectly evokes a cinderblock rec room in a church basement, festooned with colorful child-crafted posters sporting cheerfully dogmatic sayings like “Flying high for Jesus.” Pastor Greg’s office is outfitted in similar wry detail — is that a bobblehead Jesus on the shelf?
For his part, Jason literally wrestles with questions of good and evil. Thanks to an overbearing, needy mother, he’s tried to be a good boy by sublimating his own needs — and his anger — for years. Son and mother are both still reeling from the sudden death of their unhappy father and husband.
When Tyrone appears possessed by the devil, all hell breaks loose. But is he evil incarnate or an id-manifested outlet for Jason’s pent-up rage and self-hatred? The answer may be both, and that’s just one aspect that lifts this savvy show above your typical defiant-puppet fare.
The keenly observed script draws on a hodgepodge of pop cultural influences. Jason and Tyrone do a hilarious rendition of the Abbott and Costello gem “Who’s on First.” Margery seems to be channeling the mother from “Carrie” when Jason dares to defy her (“What is more important than Momma’s love?,” she shrieks). When they try to expel the demon from Jason, there’s a nod to “The Exorcist.” There’s even a scene with echoes of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
To reveal anything more would spoil the fun. Let’s just say that the viciously sinful puppet mischief onstage is not for the kiddies. Surely, somewhere Lamb Chop is turning over in her sock drawer.
HAND TO GOD | MCC Theater Company | Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher St. at Bedford St. | Through Mar. 30: Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2 p.m..; Sun. at 3 & 7:30 p.m. | $69-89 at mcctheater.org or 212-352-3101 | Two hrs., with one intermission