Playwright Robert Askins wraps his humor around a fist
NEW YORK — Robert Askins has always been a rebellious soul. Growing up in Cypress, Texas, he was an angry, troubled teen with a self-destructive streak. He got drunk, smoked pot, and cut classes. In college at the Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, he found his passion in writing plays. But even there, the explicit sexuality and violence of his plays raised the hackles of some of his teachers and fellow students, especially when he penned a dark religious allegory about Jesus and the devil in prison involving a brutal, forced sodomy.
“I’ve always been a contrarian and always really thrilled at ‘You can’t do that on television. You shouldn’t do that.’ It’s like, ‘You know what? I’m going to do it,’ ” says Askins, with a laugh.
Tucked into a corner table at a coffee shop near his Brooklyn apartment, Askins says that all writers “vibrate on a different frequency.” For him, that frequency is “anarchic rage,” “lethal perversity,” and “sex, blood, and Jesus.”
“I want to see things on stage that I haven’t seen before or that I haven’t seen in a long time,” he says. “I get bored very easily. So I want to make people scream and cry and laugh.”
Indeed, acerbic anger, surreal desperation, and subversive humor animate the action in Askins’s black comedy “Hand to God,” which is getting its New England premiere in a production at SpeakEasy Stage Company. It runs through Feb. 4 at the Calderwood Pavilion’s Wimberly Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Nominated for five Tony Awards including best play, “Hand to God” ran for nearly nine months on Broadway in 2015 after two previous runs at smaller off-Broadway stages. It centers on an awkward, troubled Texas teenager named Jason who whiles away his afternoons in the basement of his local Christian church, where his widowed mother, Margery, has taken over the congregation’s puppet ministry. Jason is alienated and grief-stricken. But his most pressing problem is that his arm seems to have become possessed by a satanic sock puppet named Tyrone, who spews hilariously vulgar insults and foul-mouthed blasphemies, while savagely calling out everyone in his path for their bad behavior.
Is Tyrone the product of Jason’s subconscious run amok, a coping mechanism for his adolescent angst, or a malign supernatural force?
“I actually think it’s extremely important that the play keep alive that central duality or even contradiction, which is that Tyrone is both a manifestation of Jason’s need to lash out but also an external force,” says David R. Gammons, who’s directing the SpeakEasy production. “If it’s just, ‘Jason had a lot of problems so he created an imaginary friend on the end of his hand to help him navigate his anger, loss, and frustration,’ well, OK, that’s an after-school special. If Tyrone is just an evil force from without, that’s just a cheap horror movie.
“Somehow the two coexisting are what give the play its depth and its humanity, and both of those things can be true and shed light on each other.”
While “Hand to God” is a comedy — and an outlandish one at that — Gammons says it’s really about people dealing with grief, loneliness, and impulses they don’t understand. “It’s the human heart underneath it that I really leaned into,” he says. “Yes, we laugh. Yes, we gasp. I hope that people will be genuinely shocked by some moments. But I think people will not walk away feeling like, ‘Oh, that was gross or gratuitous.’ Instead, I think they’ll walk away weirdly charmed by and moved by the world.”
Askins, 36, can trace the genesis of the play to some specifics of his own upbringing and turbulent teenage years. His mother ran a Christian puppet ministry in their conservative church, and he would perform shows for other children at preschools and Bible camps. He also sang with the choir and even preached for a little while when he was in high school. When he was 16, his father died and his rebelliousness amped up.
“A lot of my emotions were not expressed, which is part of the reason I think it came out in other behaviors. I wasn’t able to say to people, ‘I am hurting. This really feels bad.’ So some people who knew me during that period of time, when they see the play, they don’t see a comedy. They just see this [messed-up] kid acting out,” he says.
Still, he traces the development of his humor and facility with language to that youthful frustration. “If you just say a [expletive] thing, it lets them punish you. But if you say a really clever and awful thing, you’re Oscar Wilde,” he says.
In college at Baylor, Askins was exposed to all kinds of new writing. He cites Edward Albee, Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Martin McDonagh, and Sarah Kane as influences for the way they captured an inner turmoil and impulse for violence that’s part of our primal human makeup.
His sex comedy “Permission,” about Christian couples who engage in spanking and other sadomasochistic behavior, was produced off-Broadway in 2015. He was still tending bar at a Tex-Mex joint in Brooklyn up until “Hand to God” went into rehearsals on Broadway, and he occasionally fills in there to this day. Fortunately, he now has an HBO television pilot, “Brotherhood,” in the works, inspired by his time writing for a campus humor magazine at Baylor.
Despite his embrace of the personal, Askins says he resisted writing about home for a long time. “I’m a little bit hardheaded. I was writing these strange, heady idea plays about science and postmodernism.”
Later, he tried imitating Shepard by penning dark, surreal westerns, but he moved away from that stylistic approach because ultimately it wasn’t his own experience. “I eventually got to that place where the South is more Walmarts than it is fistfights in a muddy street, where it’s about mega-churches and not charismatic [Christianity],” he says.
“It’s a very different world, and it took me a long time to figure out that you have to find your own expression of what that place is. For me, it was comedy. It was going through the Sam Shepard of it all to get to the place that is not necessarily less dark, but just [expletive] funnier. So you can stand to look at how dark it is.”
Hand to God
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company. At Wimberly Theatre, Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, through Feb. 4. Tickets: From $25, 617-933-8600, www.SpeakEasyStage.com