BWW Reviews: Studio's MOTHERF***ER WITH THE HAT Takes Darkly Comedic Look at America's Underbelly
Garnering critical acclaim and six Tony Award nominations, Stephen Adly Guirgis' Motherf***er with the Hat burst onto the Broadway scene in 2011 and, like most contemporary plays that received that kind of attention, has sent regional theatres across the country clamoring to include it in their upcoming seasons. Washington's Studio Theatre is no exception. In this case, it was probably a pretty good decision. Studio regular Serge Seiden (Director) has assembled a fine cast of actors and talented designers that are successful in capturing this underbelly world and highlighting the most compelling elements of Guirgis' flawed, but ultimately very human, script.
We meet Veronica (a very believable Rosal Colón) in a less-than-elaborate NYC apartment and immediately - based on her speaking pattern, dress, and surroundings (including a chair providing easy access to cocaine to snort) - recognize her as a member of America's underbelly. We learn, based on a rather profane phone conversation with her mother, that life hasn't necessarily been easy for her or members of her family. Once her longtime boyfriend Jackie (Drew Cortese), a recovering alcoholic who has recently been paroled, arrives on the scene, we can see where the story is heading even more clearly. A moment of happiness - Jackie announces he's found a job - is only fleeting when Jackie, always quick to anger, accuses Veronica of infidelity. As we are quickly introduced to other characters, including those that have 'helped' Jackie in his recovery - his slimy AA sponsor Ralph D (Quentin Maré) and his cousin Julio (Liche Ariza) - it's even more apparent where the story will go and how everyone fits into it.
Cycles of addiction, infidelity, revenge, and anger are played out for us in rather predictable ways, but there are a few saving graces. Although one can find it's hard to care about any of the stock 'down on their luck' and rather despicable characters, except for maybe Ralph D's wife, Victoria (a rather underdeveloped character played by Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) and Veronica, the expert actors do their best to portray these mostly unlovable individuals with a human touch while naturally delivering some rather funny, yet mostly profane, rapid-fire dialogue with technical precision. While Guirgis' work may tread into all too familiar territory, his ability to give voice to these characters - seemingly with some understanding of and attention to their socio-psychological and economic circumstances - in a very organic way makes the play one that can be at least fundamentally appreciated.
Although we meet Veronica first, Guirgis is really telling Jackie's story and examining how his decisions impact those around him and how their decisions also impact the path Jackie takes in life. Cortese is certainly up to the challenge of playing our anti-hero and does so with unflinching honesty. He's not endearing to be sure, but behind his menacing presence and harsh way of speaking we can see what makes Jackie tick and how he pretty much wears every emotion on his sleeve. Thanks to his natural chemistry with the also excellent Colón, it's easy to see that Veronica and Jackie have been together forever and have a bit of a 'love-hate' kind of relationship. Their instant believability is a crucial element to the success of the production given that the story does, in essence, revolve around their entanglement with one another.
The supporting cast also rises to the acting challenge. Maré is able to a take a stock character like Ralph D - a veritable slimy guy who on the surface appears to be good but really is not - and make him slightly more complex and, well real. This is particularly evident in the confrontation scenes with Jackie once Jackie finds out the truth about what he did with Veronica while Jackie was away from her. Ralph D poorly rationalizes his behavior but thanks to the strength of Maré's portrayal, it's easier for us as observers to see that Ralph D finds his behavior pretty much ok and, even more important, understand why the character might think that. Likewise, Ariza's strong sense of comedic timing, aided by a strong sense of his character's background, allows us to better understand why Jackie might be drawn to his cousin Julio and how Julio ends up as part of the story. If these two elements weren't present, Julio might simply be perceived as a superfluous character.
Seiden's design elements are crucial to create a believable underbelly-like world for Guirgis' characters to inhabit. From Debra Booth's bare-bones and poorly-decorated set and Ivania Stack's decidedly urban, working class costumes (no high fashion here) to Eric Shimelonis' original music/sound design, we gain insight into the characters, including who they are, where they come from, and what they value. Robb Hunter's fight choreography is also essential to demonstrate that violence is often seen as an answer to one's problems in this kind of world - often with devastating and cyclical results.
Running Time: 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.
The Motherf***er with the Hat is currently playing through March 10, 2013 at Studio Theatre - 1501 14th Street, NW. For tickets, call the box office at 202-332-3300 or purchase them online.
Photo Credit: Teddy Wolff