Michael Doherty (Jason/Tyrone) and Carolina Sanchez (Jessica) in Hand to God at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Rep

Hand to God, a Tony-nominated, riotously funny romp, shaded with black undertones, uses a foul-mouthed sock puppet to demonstrate the shocking results when one is freed from society’s moral restraints. Playwright Robert Askins accomplishes this lesson using ribald humor overlaying searing insights. With a very talented cast and tight direction by David Ivers (One Man, Two Guvnors), Hand to God is a sparkling 100-minutes of comedy and calamity.

Teenaged Jason (actor Michael Doherty is a tour de force), living in suburban Texas, is lonely, insecure and superficially sweet. But he is consumed with repressed anger over the recent death of his innocuous father, which he channels toward his newly widowed mother, the outwardly conforming, but off-kilter Margery (excellent Laura Odeh). A very anxious Margery is short of funds, and so has invented a small job for herself teaching her Lutheran ministry’s teen puppets-for-Jesus class. Or does the solitary, ineffective Pastor Greg (well-acted by David Kelly, It Can’t Happen Here) offer her the job just to keep Margery close to him?

Attending the puppet class with Jason is his crush, the lovely Jessica (fine Carolina Sanchez), although, as a puppet snob, she would prefer to work with the Balinese shadow variety. Sneering, surly Timothy (talented Michael McIntire), the third participant, only sits in on the puppet lessons while his mother is at rehab meetings.

When Timothy makes raunchy remarks to Jessica, Jason’s puppet, the red-headed, large-mouthed Tyrone, seemingly takes on a devilish personality all his own, and launches into Timothy, using filthy language that Jason would never bring himself to use. Tyrone spews out all of Jason’s lust and wrath, while Jason seems incapable of stopping the puppet from broadcasting all of Jason’s anger and carnal impulses.

Margery, perhaps freed from her inhibitions by observing Tyrone, acts on her inappropriate sexual urges, as hilarity ensues. In the second act, Tyrone has developed sharp teeth, which he uses on Jason and others, as he grows cruder and more agitated, until he and Jessica’s sexy puppet, Jolene, engage in laugh-out-loud X-rated puppet sex.

No character in Hand to God is free from sin and hypocrisy. And that includes Pastor Greg, whose desire for Margery has loosened his own reserves. Although he doesn’t get around to an exorcism on Jason/Tyrone, it’s all he can think to do to remedy the situation.

What is remarkable about Hand to God is how the audience seems to view Tyrone as human, separate and apart from Jason. That’s how talented at acting and puppetry Michael Doherty is as Jason/Tyrone. Tyrone’s face and arm gestures are inexplicitly expressive, even though he’s just a sock. There is no ventriloquism; we see Jason’s mouth move when he assumes Tyrone’s voice, but we allow ourselves to be persuaded that it is Tyrone speaking. Perhaps it is because we can’t wait to see what Tyrone will do next.

A Texan by birth, Robert Askins knows the realm of fundamental Christianity, as well as the personality of the religious hypocrite. He uses his knowledge to full humorous effect in Hand to God. But beneath the laughs are truths about the dark urges we all have and the burdens and benefits of societal inhibitions.

Hand to God plays through March 19. For information, extended dates and tickets, visit Berkeley Rep online.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...