BWW Reviews: SCR Stages Funny and Provocative THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT
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by Michael L. Quintos
In Stephen Adly Guirgis' wickedly funny, intensely riveting 2011 dark urban comedy THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT -- now enjoying a superb new production at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through January 27 -- this very idea is explored mostly through the (cuss) words and actions of recovering addict Jackie, a volatile yet vulnerable NewYorican ex-con in desperate need to change himself and his wretched lot in life. Unfortunately, though, his optimistic trajectory is pretty much hindered by inescapable behavioral and environmental circumstances.
When the audience first meets Jackie, things seem to be looking up. Out on parole following a two-year stint in jail, Jackie, ecstatic and hopeful, is damn determined to stay clean and sober, especially for his Latin spit-fire of a longtime girlfriend Veronica (the terrific Elisa Bocanegra) -- even though she herself, shockingly, is still an active drug user. His fresh albeit naive outlook on life, nonetheless, necessitates not only securing a legit new job (one he procured even while being honest about his criminal past), but also regularly attending AA meetings with his sober sponsor-slash-life guru Ralph D.
The most troubling of these obstacles? Well, things come tumbling down after Jackie discovers an unfamiliar hat sitting atop his girlfriend's coffee table. Knowing that the hat in no way belongs to him, a fuming Jackie zooms to the conclusion that his supposedly faithful girlfriend has been cheating on him behind his back -- with, of course, the hat's mysterious owner (a correct assessment that is positively confirmed later, to no one's shock).But while Jackie is certainly armed with the best of intentions, his rocky relationships and his own nagging demons -- not to mention his irrational tendency to lose his temper and blow up -- are making his path towards fulfilling his "grown up plans" a rather bumpy one.
Thus begins Jackie's obsessive quest to find -- then severely harm -- the ghost he thinks is further damaging his already rocky relationships with both Veronica and sobriety.
With his rickety life already coming apart at the seams, Jackie is forced out of Veronica's place and temporarily squats on Ralph D.'s couch inside the apartment he shares with his bitter, long-agonizing wife Victoria (Cristina Frias), herself a bundle of disappointment. And along with his sponsor, Jackie also receives counsel from his outspoken cousin Julio (the scene-stealing Christian Barillas), a foodie and fitness fanatic, whose judgmental yet unwavering affection for Jackie stems out of a loyalty for Jackie's dead mother.
A lively, expletive-heavy hybrid of street-smart comedy and melodramatic soap opera, THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT is a gritty yet cleverly refined play that is as hysterically jolting as it is emotionally searing. The plot may be simple and straightforward, but it is completely rife for high drama and well-earned laughs. And, frankly, despite all that foul language (or, perhaps, because of it), it is one of the smartest, wittiest, funniest scripts I have ever seen come to life in an Orange County stage.
All that cussing in this play, by the way, doesn't at all feel gratuitously done for cussing's sake. Curse words, after all, are simply just the oft used, go-to phrases many of us -- from all social, educational, and economic backgrounds -- use as a way of colorfully amplifying and communicating our passionate feelings about something. In the case of MOTHERF**KER's resident ne'er-do-wells, their explicit language only further punctuates their fiery emotions. But what's pleasantly surprising? That Guirgis has a seemingly effortless, masterful knack for wedging-in shockingly eloquent bon mots of pathos, insight, and self-examination in between all that #@!*%&*$@.
Thoughtfully directed by Michael John Garcés, SCR presents this dark comedy as a conveyor belt (or, more accurately, a turntable) of one-upping vignettes, populated by Guirgis' fully-developed characters that all seem so vividly real (Nephelie Andonyadis' highly detailed apartment sets -- each taking a turn to face the audience -- also add to the realism). Despite their ghetto-heightened histrionics and exhaustive, bleep-worthy diatribes, each character possesses an authenticity that's far from just broadly-painted stereotypes. And, funny enough, somehow even as they cuss with abandon, their words are articulated in a rhythmic flow much like edgy poetry slams.
Much of that is brought to emotional fruition by MOTHERF**KER's incredible, engaging cast, each of whom embody their roles with a raw, intelligent truthfulness that surpasses mere line readings. As rich as these characters' words are written already, the actors tasked to personify them make them believably lived-in... Real People with Real Bodies... and Real Grown Folks' Problems.
As Jackie, the stilted, broken man at the center of the play, Sancho is utterly mesmerizing, capably romantic one moment, then gut-wrenchingly pathetic the next. And he can be equally as stirring as a powder keg about to blow up at any second, or as a vulnerable lost puppy, desperate for a bone. An emotional roller-coaster of a character, Sancho easily elicits fear, pity, disgust, sympathy, and even camaraderie from the audience -- all within the span of the show.
Ralph D., Jackie's "trusty" companion in recovery, is played with voracious vigor by Bates, who, I must mention, was also a standout in last year's SCR production of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG. Here, the impressive Bates -- whose commanding voice sounds eerily like Samuel L. Jackson's circa Pulp Fiction, especially when espousing fiery speeches at his ex-con charge -- portrays both sides of Ralph D.'s personality with great panache: the charismatic leader and jovial pal... and the Grade-AA douche-bag this man really is. His scenes with the equally impressive Frias, who plays his unsatisfied wife Victoria, is a study in palpable tension and bitter surrender.
As Veronica, Jackie's girlfriend, Bocanegra is also a fascinating standout. Her enthralling, no-holds-barred, flaws-and-all portrait of this damaged character is truly awards-worthy, and her scenes with Sancho are just exceptional. Together, the actors convey a deep, romantic entanglement that seems very real and passionate as it is inevitably doomed to failure. And finally, as Jackie's cousin Julio, Barillas' funny and touching portrait of this uncompromising, self-assured pillar of strength and sass will no doubt handily endear him as an audience favorite. No wonder then that during the show's press performance, this gifted comic was the only actor awarded with a round of spontaneous applause when he exited a scene. Bravo!
Completely engrossing from start to finish, this profanity-laced urban drama-dy is, to be honest, an edgy pleasant surprise to see in an Orange County theater, especially in a major regional theater such as SCR. Don't let the play's, uh, colorful title (censored herewith, of course) sway you from seeing a truly top-notch show. Beyond the dinginess and profanity that's de rigueur of its slice of urban life, THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT is simply a gripping play that crackles with a nervous, uneasy energy -- and that is easily one of the most provocative offerings this Tony Award-winning regional theater has mounted in its long history.
And while I tend to agree with the notion that "vulgarity is no substitute for wit" -- a phrase I procured from Maggie Smith's character Dowager Countess Grantham on the brilliant TV series Downton Abbey -- I must say that in the case of this hilarious play, vulgarity absolutely punctuates the wit.
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Photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR. From top: Jackie (Tony Sancho) discovers a rogue hat; Julio (Christian Barillas) has a heart-to-heart with his cousin Jackie; Ralph D. (Larry Bates) interrogates Veronica (Elisa Bocanegra); Victoria (Cristina Frias) is shown the fist.
Performances of THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT continue at South Coast Repertory through January 27. Tickets, priced from $20 to $70, can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.