BWW REVIEWS: It's a Hard Knock Life on Boston Stages
Two 2011 Best Play Tony nominees end their runs in Boston this weekend. Stephen Adly Guirgis' tough-talking The Motherf**ker with the Hat runs through October 13 at SpeakEasy Stage while David Lindsay-Abaire's locally flavored Good People is at the Huntington Theatre Company through October 14. Both deal with people trying to overcome the disadvantaged lives they were born into: the first a New York City street kid and ex-con trying to go straight and stay sober, the second a working-class South Boston single mom trying desperately to provide for her severely handicapped adult daughter. While Motherf**ker tries very hard to be shocking, gritty and insightful, it is the gentler and funnier Good People that packs the lasting punch.
The Mother**ker with the Hat
Cast in order of appearance:
Now through October 13, SpeakEasy Stage, Roberts Studio Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, Boston; tickets are $25-$57 with discounts for students, seniors and those under 25; available online at www.SpeakEasyStage.com or by calling the Box Office at 617-933-8600.
It takes almost two hours for Stephen Adly Guirgis' searing comedy The Motherf**ker with the Hat to land emotionally, but when it does, look out. It's a whopper. Ironically, this contemporary urban tale of ex-cons and addicts in various stages of recovery is most gripping when it dials down the street talk and lets the silence of love shine through. There's one final gentle gesture of adoration and forgiveness at the end that turns all of the previous rage and insecurity into an unexpected tidal wave of hope. As it turns out, this is the play's most tender moment, and its most devastating.
As the title would suggest, The Motherf**ker with the Hat takes place on the fringes of a gritty inner New York City world influenced by gangs, drugs, violence and poverty. Jackie, a young Latino man trying to turn his life around after serving time and getting sober, finds his new job and sobriety tested when he suspects his girlfriend Veronica (a fiery EveLyn Howe) of having an affair with another man. When Veronica refuses to identify the man whose hat Jackie finds in her apartment, they square off, words and fists flying. Afraid he'll snap and violate his parole, Jackie seeks the advice of his fast-talking twelve-step sponsor, Ralph D (a menacingly charming Maurice Emmanuel Parent).
The real stabilizing influence in Jackie's life, however, turns out to be his gay cousin Julio (the delightful Alejandro Simoes), a massage therapist and personal trainer who thinks good food can solve any squabble – unless, of course, violence becomes necessary! Then he's ready to kick a**. Julio is the one who knows both sides of Jackie – the selfish user and the kind protector – and he's never afraid to hold the mirror up to either face.
Guirgis, too, holds a mirror up to his characters, revealing the complex contradictions of addictive personalities. Wanting to succeed but self-sabotaging at every turn, Jackie, Veronica and even Ralph D delude themselves into thinking someone else is always to blame. What sparks hope for Jackie is his willingness to take his twelve steps to heart and begin to take responsibility for his own life.
Director David R. Gammons and his able and likable cast navigate through Guirgis' incendiary dialog with a naturalness that makes it almost palatable. To their great credit, they also bring a pulsing humanity to characters that could easily fall prey to stereotyping.
These aren't exactly the kids next door. But raised under different circumstances, they could be.
Written by David Lindsay-Abaire; directed by Kate Whoriskey; scenic design, Alexander Dodge; costume design, Ilona Somogyi; lighting design, Matthew Richards; original music and sound design, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Cast in order of appearance:
"There but for the grace of God go I" is the theme in David Lindsay-Abaire's stunning new play Good People receiving its Boston area premiere at the Huntington Theatre Company now through this Sunday. Set in "Southie," the Irish working-class Boston neighborhood made famous to the world by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and Whitey Bulger, Good People is "wicked funny" but also staggeringly "smaht" as it contrasts the life of unemployed single mom Margaret (JohAnna Day) against that of Dr. Michael Dillon (Michael Laurence) who used to be known as "Mikey" when he had a fling with Margaret in high school one summer before their senior year.
Now some 30 years later, Margaret and Mikey cross paths again, she still living in an apartment in Southie with her severely handicapped adult daughter Joyce, he a prominent endocrinologist living in a mansion in Chestnut Hill with his much younger – and African-American – wife Kate (Rachael Holmes). When Margaret boldly ventures out to Mike's swank suburban residence looking for a referral for a job, pleasantries give way to class warfare as Mike accuses Margaret of "making bad choices" and deserving the life she has wrought. Ironically, one very crucial choice that Margaret made many years ago enabled Mike to escape his past and become the celebrated doctor he is today. By being "good people," she sealed her fate. Her life is minimum wage and maximum stress.
What makes this very powerful Good People so gosh darned funny, though, are the ways in which Margaret and her good friends Dottie (Nancy E. Carroll) and Jean (Karen MacDonald) deal with their hardscrabble day-to-day lives. Dottie, Margaret's landlady but also Joyce's caretaker when Margaret is out looking for work, makes cheesy Styrofoam arts and crafts rabbits that she sells for $5 a piece. Jean, dubbed "Mouthie from Southie," is the flamboyant meddling gossip whose keen observational eye and no-nonsense approach keep her friends honest in spite of themselves. The three drink coffee in the kitchen and go to Bingo at the Bread of Life. Their support for each other is as dependable as the caustic remarks they bounce back and forth by reflex. They know each other that well.
Director Kate Whoriskey could not have assembled a better cast for Good People. JohAnna Day (Veronica in last season's God of Carnage) wears Margaret's world-weariness heavily on her sleeve yet there is a smoldering fire of determination that is always evident someplace deep inside. Nancy E. Carroll is the epitome of "dottiness," wringing laugh after laugh out of her convoluted thinking and convulsing the audience with her deadpan delivery. And what can you say about Karen MacDonald, a Southie native who seems to be having the time of her life returning to her roots – and her Bahstun accent? She struts, she casts exasperaTed Eyes to the heavens, and she watches ever knowing, waiting for just the right moment to tell it like it is – truth wrapped in barbs wrapped in love.
The rest of the cast provides perfectly able support. Michael Laurence as Mike lets his condescension for Margaret (and his own past) show even before he reveals his true hateful colors during the Act II showdown. Rachael Holmes as Kate is a wonderful combination of upscale Georgetown breeding, well-meaning sincerity, and real-world naiveté. Nick Westrate as Stevie, Margaret's former department store boss and the son of an old friend, is affable and guileless, a big kid who can't understand why everyone thinks he's gay even as he takes his place next to the ladies at Bingo and adorns his desk with troll dolls.
Finally, where else but at the Huntington does a set design routinely stop the show? When the curtains opened on Dr. Mike's Chestnut Hill parlor at the top of Act II, an audible gasp was followed by loud and lengthy applause. Alexander Dodge's majestic Earth-tone set is exquisite in every detail. From the crown molding to the mantled fireplace to the imposing art work to the elegant staircase, it would look right at home on the cover of House Beautiful. It looks like a million bucks, just as it should.
Both The Motherf**ker with the Hat and Good People deal with issues of choice vs. chance; opportunity vs. circumstance; nature vs. nurture; and the seemingly great but ultimately miniscule divide between the haves and the have nots. The first hits you with the shock and awe of foul language and violent people; the second bathes you in the illuminating light of dependable friends sharing laughter through tears. Both have an exquisite ear for everyday dialog. Both make you think and feel. Both end with a flicker of hope. But it's Good People that will haunt you long after you've left the theater. Ultimately what's said with a glance and a smile is far more powerful than a barrage of expletives.
PHOTOS: Jaime Carrillo as Jackie and EveLyn Howe as Veronica; Jaime Carrillo, Maurice Emmanuel Parent as Ralph D and Alejandro Simoes as Julio; Michael Laurence as Mike and JohAnna Day as Margaret; Nancy E. Carroll as Dottie, Karen MacDonald as Jean, and JohAnna Day; Michael Laurence, Rachael Holmes as Kate and JohAnna Day