THE BASICS: HAND TO GOD, the irreverent 2015 Tony-nominated comedy by Robert Askins, directed by John Hurley, starring Dan Urtz, Jenn Stafford, John Kreuzer, Henry Farleo, and Sabrina Kahwaty (replacing Maura Coseglia) re-opened after 20 months on November 4 and runs through December 5, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2. Road Less Traveled Theater, 456 Main Street, Buffalo (716-629-3069). www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org
Runtime: One Hour, 45 minutes with one intermission (full service bar, light snacks) Advisories galore: Irreverence, Language, Sexual Situations, Violence, all in the service of great comedy. Proof of full vaccination, masks required
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: To help recently widowed Margery overcome her grief, fundamentalist Pastor Greg suggests that she start a puppet club at their Cypress, Texas church so that the teenagers can put on Biblical stories. Her son Jason, who is also grieving for his father, makes a hand puppet called Tyrone who soon takes on a life of his own. Tyrone says things that are possibly better left unsaid, then progressively takes on a devilish personality, physically attacking people and property. The publicity states “He’s lewd, profane, combative, and refuses to leave Jason’s arm.” As usual with RLTP productions, it’s a show with many levels and subtexts, from teenage sex drives, to adult sex drives, to questions of honesty, to coping with grief, to more cerebral questions such as the role of religion, religious rituals, and the use of scapegoats. By God, honest to God, or, as they say down South (with a raised right palm) “hand to God,” it is hilarious, simultaneously one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen with some of saddest, most touching moments ever.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Disclosure: Much of this review is a copy of my pre-pandemic shutdown review of HAND TO GOD from March 5, 2020 which you can read here.
The headline then was “Audience roars at Road Less Traveled’s HAND TO GOD with actor Urtz in a breakout role.” Only now, in the fall of 2021, that role is no longer breakout, but has in fact earned actor Dan Urtz the Artie Award (think Tony awards for Buffalo) for “Outstanding Leading Actor in a Play” at the ceremony held at D’Youville College just this week. In one of those weird Covid “What year is this?” moments, Urtz accepted an award for a play that was about to “open” in four days. Even now, or then (Who’s on first? I’m so confused) this play had been delayed from the 2018 – 2019 season and so as Artistic/Executive Director Scott Behrend told the audience on opening night way back in 2020 “the actors have had 18 months to rehearse their lines.” And later that night my wife asked “do you think that some of the lines were improv?” I don’t think so, but everybody was so smooth (not always the case for an opening night on any stage in Buffalo) that, hand to God, it did seem as if each actor was completely speaking his or her own words. And that was then. This is now.
Where to begin?
Let’s start with Dan Urtz who, before the shutdown, was a regular at Theater of Youth where he has often been cast in “outsider” roles such as Charlie Brown in A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS. In other words, even when he has the lead role, he plays a nebbish-y character mystified by regular life and the rules of the game. And he plays those characters well. As he wrote in 2020 in his program bio “I’m beyond grateful … to those who have always supported me in all my utterly chaotic weirdness.”
And nebbish-y is exactly what the character Jason is, an awkward teenage boy. And if that’s all there was to the role, I’m sure it would have been a solid Urtz performance, in his wheelhouse. But then, there’s this whole other role, as Tyrone, the cute puppet Jason makes who comes alive on his left arm, and then there’s this whole other role on top of that, playing what Tyrone evolves (devolves?) into. Standing ovations are such a normal part of curtain applause these days that they don’t really mean what they used to. The standing O that Urtz received at the end was, trust me, hand to God, from the audience’s heart.
The standing O that Urtz received at the end was, trust me, hand to God, from the audience’s heart.
Equally outstanding was Jenn Stafford whom many might remember from her role(s) in Second Generation Theatre’s TOXIC AVENGER as tough-as-nails Mayor Babs Belgoody, where she was also Melvin’s disappointed mother, Ma Ferd and, as I wrote in my review about TOXIC: “in the highlight number just before intermission (“Bitch/Slut/Liar/Whore”) …The house exploded. A standing ovation at the conclusion of shows these days is the norm. When’s the last time you saw a standing ovation at the end of a first act?” As you read above, Jenn Stafford just won the Artie Award for OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL for her dual roles of “Mayor/Ma” in THE TOXIC AVENGER.
Well, like Urtz, Stafford is back, baby. As she did in TOXIC, she plays a mother on the edge, keeping it together when she can, totally losing it when she can’t. In a play that asks questions about reality and honesty, Stafford’s “Margery” in HAND TO GOD is as honest a presentation as you’re likely to get.
You can’t have a Five Buffalo review, though, unless all the elements are in place, and that includes the acting and puppetry of these days another Theatre of Youth star, Sabrina Kahwaty, here replacing Maura Nolan Coseglia as teenage Jessica and her puppet, the buxom Jolene. No spoilers here, but the Act II “confrontation” of puppets Tyrone and Jolene is one that people will talk about on the drive home. To paraphrase that old line about dancers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, in that scene, Jolene has to do everything Tyrone does, only backwards and in high heels.
As Pastor Greg (the only “normal” role, and that just by a thread) John Kruezer (Artie nominated this year for OUTSTANDING SUPPORTING ACTOR IN A MUSICAL in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN) provides the only gravitas or glue in this play of over-the-top characters. Years on stage have prepared actor John Kreuzer to play Pastor Greg as a very “real” human getting by with an extra burden placed on him by virtue of his job, providing pastoral care in the most trying of situations.
Speaking of improv, Henry Farleo, who actually does do improv over at Buff State’s FRIDAY NIGHT LIVE!, plays the third teenager, the more worldly Timmy, at times surly, then funny, then nasty, a teenage tsunami of emotions.
And once again let’s give major kudos to a Buffalo treasure, puppet maker Adam Kreutinger, whose creations have graced many local stages as well as appearing on TV and in movies. His puppets won a 2018 Artie for TOY’s STELLA LUNA. This year Adam was Artie nominated for OUTSTANDING TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENT for his puppets in HAND TO GOD. As explained in the (always at RLTP very interesting) notes, these are “hand puppets” not in their own little proscenium stage, but in full view, with the head and mouth manipulated by the actor’s hand inside, and the two arms manipulated by attached slim metal rods occasionally held in the other hand.
While a review might not normally name the entire production crew, this play is so fast paced, so active, and so crazy that everyone has to bring his or her “A-Game” starting with Director John Hurley who was able to get entirely consistent performances from all his actors. That’s a challenge at any time, but this play is so crazy, that consistency is truly a virtue.
Sara Foote is once again Production Stage Manager assisted by Michaela Pascuzzi and Alexis Cuevea, with a chaotic set, cleverly designed by Dyan Burlingame, smooth management was critical. There were also complex sound (Katie Menke) and light (John Rickus) cues, lots and lots of props (Diane Almeter Jones), costumes (Jenna Damberger design and Brenna Prather wardrobe) and more physical action than usual (Adam Rath, Fight Direction) all TD’d by Lou Iannone and coordinated by Hasheen DeBerry. Whew! Nobody phoned in anything.
Without spoilers, I can tell you that this play is about grieving – is there a “right way” or a “wrong way” – and it’s about honesty – what is not enough and what is “too much” – and sex – what is not enough and what is “too much” – and the whole crazy mating dance between the sexes – and deeper questions – what is the role of religion and scapegoats and forgiveness. Yes, these are big topics, and with the exception of a few short “sermons” from the puppet Tyrone, this is not a play where characters get overly introspective. They act and they “act out.” Perhaps they should talk more. But then, after listening to Tyrone talk to the other characters… nah, maybe not.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!
Lead image – Two recent Artie Award winners – Dan Urtz as Jason (and Tyrone) confronts Jenn Stafford as Margery, Jason’s mom | Source: Gina Gandolfo 2021