It’s a gift that comes around only once a season, if we’re lucky. The perfect role for the perfect actor in a (nearly) perfect production that aligns into a moment, an event – a breakthrough performance.
If you’ve heard or read anything from those who caught the opening weekend of Road Less Traveled Productions' “Hand to God,” then surely you know now about the work of actor Dan Urtz. And with good reason. There’s no hyperbole to the buzz. Here and now: Urtz is a star.
He plays Jason, a young man enduring the difficult loss of his father. Seeking spiritual refuge, he and his mother have volunteered to produce a puppet show with children at their church. Except that Jason’s hand puppet Tyrone has a dirty mouth of his own, and moreover, appears to be the incarnation of Satan. Tyrone’s influence over Jason, an otherwise good kid, is causing ripples in the church and with his mother.
To be clear, this is a dark, twisted comedy and not a cinematic thriller. There’s an element of “Avenue Q” in the play’s fun, where traditionally juvenile puppets curse like sailors and have wild, messy sex. (The show comes with a parental warning.) It’s wrong fun for all the right reasons, but playwright Robert Askins goes deeper than that.
Jason and his mother are wounded, lost in their own family portrait. That a child might project his pain onto an inanimate object is both understandable and a call for help. His mother Margery has her own grieving methods, which you’ll have to learn about for yourself.
The play’s strength is the discussion of the relationship between comedy and drama, the interdependency of pain and relief, of absurdity and reality. There’s much to howl at here, between Askins’ gross humor and Urtz’s marvelous handling of both Jason and Tyrone, two whip-smart characters with baggage for days. But plenty to cry for, too.
With Robin Williams-like reflexes and Jim Carreyesque wink, Urtz employs a frantic kind of calmness that’s both alarming and spellbinding. He internalizes the emotions of an external, presentational character, and with seeming ease. It’s a remarkable, versatile, trustworthy performance.
The entire company delivers with their own high notes, too. Maura Nolan Coseglia is a breath of fresh air as the grounded Jessica. Her big scene in Act 2 is both a riot and deeply moving. Henry Farleo is wickedly fun as classmate Timmy, a young man with his own devious mind. John Kreuzer delivers handily in the role of Pastor Greg, a man of deep faith who has his own issues.
The great Jenn Stafford delivers a whirlwind performance as Margery, the kind of unruly role she’s adept at spinning. Her often heightened state, somewhere between glamorous Broadway star and film noir chanteuse, is in Margery’s favor, though I wonder how Margery’s crescendo might benefit from a subtler, more contextual introduction.
Director John Hurley manages big themes with grace and technical demands with precision. Scenes transition and unfold with smart choreography, giving Dyan Burlingame’s set, Katie Menke’s sound and John Rickus’ lighting designs fantastic framework for success.
I found issue with some of Askins’ writing at the top of the show. It took me a few too many beats to fully grasp the relationships and expectations between these characters. Some of this may be the fact that adults are playing children in, what, high school? Middle school? These facts are indeed integral to the plot (no spoilers here), and a bit too cloudy.
Once it’s off and running, this production delivers a captivating story told with great maturity, humor and surprise. Just the components needed for the right actor – and entire company – at the right moment in time, to do it great justice.
"Hand to God"
★ ★ ★ ½ (out of 4)
Through March 29 at Road Less Traveled Theater, 456 Main St. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $39 (box office, 629-3069, roadlesstraveledproductions.org).