Sunday, April 26, 2015

New Broadway Plays—"Hand to God" and Renee Fleming in "Living on Love"

Hand to God
Written by Robert Askins; directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel 
Performances through July 26, 2015
Booth Theatre, 222 West 45th Street, New York, NY

Living on Love
Written by Joe DiPietro; directed by Kathleen Marshall
Performances through August 2, 2015
Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, New York, NY

Boyer (front center) and cast of Hand to God (photo: Joan Marcus)
A decent idea for a 10-minute Saturday Night Live skit stretched well past what its meager laughs provide, Robert Askins' play Hand to God goes on for two hours flogging the same dead horse: Bible Belt religious zealots. In a small Texas town, attractive widow Margery occupies her time by leading a hand-puppet class in the local church basement with three teenage misfits: nerdy Jessica, dopey Timothy and Margery's own son Jason. They are awful  puppeteers, but it's something for them to do. 

After class, Pastor Greg makes his feelings known to Margery under the guise of "comforting" her, but she rebuffs him; meanwhile, lunkheaded Timothy's crude double entrendres improbably attract her to him instead. Shy Jason, who has a crush on Jessica, finds that his puppet Tyrone has a mind—and mouth—of his own, and becomes increasingly vulgar in saying what Jason cannot bring himself to say about the others...and himself. He barricades himself in the basement room with Tyrone, and Pastor Greg tries ending the satanist siege of his church.

If the superior Avenue Q didn't sate your thirst for witnessing puppets curse and simulate sex on a Broadway stage, then Hand to God might prove a slightly diverting time. This infantile play has cartoonish characters whose relationships are implausible from the get-go: would Margery begin having sex with Timothy, becoming so enamored of him that even when her son's puppet situation has gotten serious—Tyrone bites Timothy's ear—she jumps his bones again in Pastor Greg's office, where Jessica, followed by the pastor, would inconveniently walk in on them?

Or, later, when Jason remains in the room with his puppet, why would Jessica climb in through an outside window (she could just walk through the door like everyone else) to engage Jason in a duel with her own voluptuous puppet, seducing Tyrone, which leads to the horny puppets  going at it? Even it makes for a cheap laugh, it makes no sense: these teens could barely work their puppets earlier but now complete intricately choreographed movements that might tax even veteran puppeteers.

Askins purports to make some sort of statement about hypocrisy and religion, but aside from a few genuinely funny moments, Hand to God is little more than a string of not very original sketches. Although Beowulf Boritt comes up with a clever set (which, as the curtain lifts on Act II, gets the show's biggest applause when we see what the demonic puppet has wrought), director Moritz von Stuelpnagel pitches his talented cast to remain in hysterical mode throughout.

Stephen Boyer's tricky dual performance is a physical tour de force, as he alternates between Jason and Tyrone's voices effortlessly; Sarah Stiles's Jessica isn't far behind during their dragged-out sex scene. Michael Oberholtzer's Timothy is an amusingly dumb bully, Geneva Carr's Margery is a sympathetic and sexy harried mom and Marc Kudisch 's Pastor Greg is a properly confused clergyman caricature. But Hand to God deserves less than the hand audiences and reviewers are giving it.

Fleming and Sills in Living on Love (photo: Joan Marcus)
Creaky and old-fashioned, Living on Love lurches from one tired joke to the next as it tries—and usually fails—to recapture the luster of the classic comedies of yesteryear. Even when it was first performed in 1985, Garson Kanin's Peccadillo—in which an over-the-hill conductor and his opera singer wife jealously compete at completing their memoirs with help from young, attractive ghostwriters—was a tired throwback, and Joe DiPietro's clumsy adaptation makes it  even more rickety.

What saves it from being a complete wash-out is director Kathleen Marshall's adroitness at staging physical comedy on Derek McLane's sparklingly appointed Fifth Avenue townhouse set. And Marshall's cast (with the glaring exception of Jerry O'Connell, frantic and unfunny as ghostwriter Robert Samson) is attuned to the needs of such fluffy onstage antics.

As the Maestro, Douglas Sills zanily overplays but is never hammy; his fractured English is funnier than it has any right to be, his comic timing is impeccable, and his hair overacts even more—and even more hilariously—than he does. As ghostwriter Iris Peabody, Anna Chlumsky shows she's as adept as physical comedy as she is with her deadpan line readings in In the Loop and Veep. As the Maestro and Diva's butlers, Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson are good ringmasters, although they are saddled with an annoying plot reveal it shares with, of all things, It Shoulda Been You.

Then there's the Diva herself, Renee Fleming. A famous soprano at the Metropolitan Opera and opera houses around the world for the past 20 years, Fleming makes an auspicious Broadway stage debut as a parody of a diva not far removed from herself. As a veteran singing actress in operas by Strauss and Mozart, she unsurprisingly has got the comic timing and charming ability to work an audience down: she also shows off her still lovely vocals here and there, including a sweetly-sung duet on Irving Berlin's "Always" with Sills. 

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