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'Hand to God' review: A devilish sock puppet, and sex

Steven Boyer and Sarah Stiles in

Steven Boyer and Sarah Stiles in "Hand to God." Credit: Joan Marcus

Last spring Off-Broadway, "Hand to God" was a wicked little church satire about a small-town Texas teen whose sock puppet is possessed by the devil.

Improbably pumped up for Broadway, with a lot more yelling and joke-pounding, the offbeat reverence shrinks in charm and impact. Robert Askins' gory yet sweet-natured spoof feels more like a drawn-out sketch, and the gleeful dirty-talk gets childish when hammered by good actors encouraged to shriek.

This is much the same Obie-winning production, directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, which means we get to enjoy the devil-made-me-do-it, double-duty virtuosity of Steven Boyer as both hapless young Jason and Tyrone, the evil knit sock with teeth. And late in the brief evening (larded to 110 minutes with an intermission), there is an excellent sex scene between Tyrone and an uninhibited sock-puppet vamp with a Mae West attitude. She exists on the arm of game Jessica (Sarah Stiles), another misfit of the Christian Puppet Ministry.

Admittedly, given this country's revived culture wars, there is a certain daring in a play that makes its fun in a church basement. There, Jason's confused, grief-stricken widowed mom (Geneva Carr) goes for rough sex with a big, insinuating lug of a cute boy (Michael Oberholtzer), and the unctuous, predatory Pastor Greg (Marc Kudisch, vastly overqualified) trolls his flock for dating options.

Despite the bible ripping and the "have-a-blessed-day" pieties, however, "Hand to God" is as much about religion as "Avenue Q" is about Sesame Street. Both are just diving boards to bounce dangerous thoughts into safe water.

In fact, the lead producer is also responsible for "Avenue Q," which would be no problem if the effort to find another big dark-horse hit -- "Avenue 666"? -- did not feel so strenuous.

Then again, there is Beowulf Boritt's inspired set, which turns from family-friendly cinder-box mundanity to a devil's playground, including unspeakable acts against a Barbie and a Hello Kitty with her eyes gouged out. And, finally, late in the short evening, there is that clench of impeccably portrayed puppet sex. If the rest of the night just feels like foreplay, however, that's not play enough for Broadway.

WHAT "Hand to God"

WHERE Booth Theatre, 222 W. 45th St.

INFO $65-$137; 212-239-6200; handtogodbroadway.com

BOTTOM LINE Nasty little downtown satire misplaced on Broadway

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