Apr 8, 2015

A dirty evangelical sock puppet takes Broadway

A dark and raw comedy about an evangelical sock puppet is a big hit in New York:

The New York Times has written about Hand to God at least seven times since it first premiered off-off Broadway in 2011, when critic Charles Isherwood said the show had a "naughty but lively tone" that "almost curdles into something more disturbing."

Now Hand to God is opening on Broadway, and the New York Times critic loves it even more. It's a "black comedy about the divided human soul," Isherwood writes, a Broadway "misfit both merry and scary, and very welcome."

As he put it in yet another piece on the play,
All of us play unhappy host to a demon or two roosting in our brains, urging us on to bad behavior now and then: a cutting remark, a catty tweet. But after watching the terrific, scary-funny play 'Hand to God,' by Robert Askins, I am very glad I don't own a hand puppet.
Other critics liked it too.

Askins, the author of the play, has some experience with evangelical sock puppets. He grew up in the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church, in Texas, where his mother had a ministry for children. There were puppets. As a teenager, Askins would go with his mom to vacation Bible schools and Christian preschools and do puppetry, preforming evangelical stories. They were, he says now, "badly written attempts to bring children to Jesus."

Like a main character in Hand to God, Askins also lost his father while he was a teenager. He didn't act out his trauma and rage with a puppet, but seems to have preferred the more traditional drugs and alcohol. At the same time, church groups had him speak about his faith and the loss of his father and dealing with grief. When he went to Baylor a few years later he was, by his own account, a self-destructive mess.

"There are expectations about behavior," he told the magazine New York Theater. "I did not meet them. To be fair, I was also very young and working through some stuff."

At Baylor, he got the nickname "Dirty Rob." He got a scar from hitting his head while passing-out drinking. He struggled with his faith, eventually walking away from the Baptists of his school, the Lutheranism of his childhood and organized religion. He started writing plays with lots of sex and violence and religious ambivalence.

He moved to Brooklyn and got a day-job as a bartender.

It's not an uncommon story for those who grew up evangelical, except that the 34-year-old Askins now has a play on Broadway. Every night, his puppet rages and mocks and questions and says the things Askins wants it to say.

The dirty evangelical puppet also expresses, the critics agree, a deep sympathy for the characters it gathers in an imaginary Texas church basement. And it's funny, not just in a way that pokes at people who want to use puppets for Jesus but also as catharsis.

Perhaps there's even a kind of forgiveness there.

Asked how he wanted to be remembered, Askins said he hopes people say of him he "he was fair and good to the people who let him be fair and good to them."

His next play is about Christian domestic discipline, a version of BDSM.