BWW Reviews: THE MOTHERF***ER WITH THE HAT Is a Brutally Romantic Comedy at Artists Rep
Here is something very few people know about me: I love the F-word. It's the most versatile word in English. It can be used as just about every part of speech, it fits in almost any sentence, and nothing's better at getting someone's attention than a well-placed F-bomb. Of course, there are times and places where it's inappropriate, and like anything else it can be diminished with overuse. Martin Scorcese's awful film The Wolf of Wall Street, among its many other excesses, recently set a record with over five hundred uses of the F-word in a three-hour film, and by the end of the movie I didn't want to hear it again for a while.
Stephen Adly Guirgis's play The Motherf***er with the Hat puts the word right there in the title for all to see. (It caused some amusing problems at the 2011 Tony Awards ceremony.) The setup is simple: Jackie, a recovering drug and alcohol addict recently released from prison, is home to celebrate his first job. He brings presents for his girlfriend, Veronica, and as they get undressed to commemorate the event, Jackie notices a strange man's hat on the table. He confronts Veronica, who denies any wrongdoing, but he doesn't believe her. So he storms out.
Jackie ends up at the home of Ralph, his sponsor, who tries to soothe him and keep him from relapsing. Jackie's cousin Julio also has a few things to say about Veronica (and Ralph), and that's pretty much the play. Jackie confronts Veronica, Ralph confronts Jackie, Julio confronts everyone else, and there's a lot of yelling and swearing until the play ends two hours later. The plot boils down to whether Veronica cheated, and with whom, and whether she will ever stop abusing substances, and whether Jackie can manage to stay sober. None of those questions are answered, though they're all debated over and over until, frankly, I didn't care. I just wanted the yelling to stop.
The actors give remarkable performances despite the shallow characters. John San Nicolas, as Jackie, has a marathon-sized role and gives it his all. He can be hilarious one second and heartbreaking the next, and even with Jackie's dese-dem-dose vocabulary finds a wide range of emotions. Even in the repetitive fight scenes, San Nicolas never reuses an effect or gives the same reaction twice.
Gilberto Marin del Campo is just as strong as Julio, who seems gay (but keeps referring to an offstage wife) and effete, but turns out to have a temper of his own and a fierce loyalty that no one should mess with. Diana De La Cruz does what she can with Veronica, but the character doesn't grow or change much; all she does is veer between screaming and seduction, and we never find out why she does the things she does.
Victor Mack as Ralph has a harder assignment. Ralph is all twelve-step platitudes and, later in the story, confessions, and he doesn't have the flavorful Spanglish dialogue of the others. Mack is a strong actor but he just doesn't have the tools to make Ralph interesting. Likewise, Val Landrum as Victoria (Ralph's wife) doesn't have a lot to do but complain and act sexy, and her one big scene is a snooze. (Playwrighting 101: Don't give characters similar-sounding names. Is Guirgis trying to tell us that the women are interchangeable? He certainly hasn't written either of them with much depth.)
Director Kevin E. Jones tries to make the play entertaining, but he can't provide the depth that the playwright left out of the script. He's also slowed down by Tal Sanders's set, which is rich with detail but too cumbersome; the set changes seemed to take forever, making the play the equivalent of watching a movie on commercial television with innumerable commercial interruptions. Jones and fight choreographer Jonathan Cole provided some exciting physical confrontations (well played by the actors), but the rest of the play was all conversation, and even my beloved F-word grew dull and repetitive by the end. Sound designer Sharath Patel threw in a wide melange of pop songs between scenes, but to no discernible effect.
The title of the play is irresistible. Who isn't curious what a play called The Motherf***er with the Hat is about? Honestly, though, despite the efforts of the cast, there isn't much to see. I was more entertained by audience members and ushers trying to talk about the play beforehand without using that word. Ultimately, it's the writer who F-ed up this one.