Mo' Hats, Mo Problems: ART's "The Motherf*cker with the Hat"
By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
During set changes in Stephen Adley Guirgis' play "The Motherf*cker with the Hat" (at Artist's Rep Theater through March 30), director Kevin E. Jones stages shadowy drug deals, in which buyer and seller wordlessly signal one another and silently make their transactions. It's a nice touch, reminding the audience of the dangerous, adrenaline fueled environment the play's characters have inhabited and, in some cases, are trying to escape. The play's best scenes dramatize this, as well, as its characters for the briefest of moments open themselves to each other, braving the fear it requires to be vulnerable. More often, however, they are "fronting," as Veronica (Diana De La Cruz) says, bloviating in defensive, showy ways that resemble an obscene version of an urban sitcom. As the play opens, for instance, Jackie (John San Nicholas), a recovering alcoholic and drug addict and "Hat's" protagonist, returns home, crowing about the new job he's acquired to his girlfriend, and active addict, Veronica. Seemingly every line of dialogue contains the phrase "and sh-t" for emphasis, or a tedious, word drunk simile (ie: "Loving Veronica is like waking up each day and giving your balls to Godzilla, and saying, 'Yo 'zilla, be gentle, OK?'"). As Veronica showers in preparation for their celebratory love making, Jackie muses aloud about the opportunities his new job could open up for him, and about how much sharing that new life with Veronica could mean. Just as his heart opens, however, he sees a hat on their breakfast table, igniting a jealousy within him. The two are soon in a chaotic argument, their moment of shared hope over. Jackie visits his recovery sponsor Ralph (Victor Mack) for guidance. Ralph counsels patience, acceptance and meetings. He seems selflessly devoted to Jackie, but we later learn this stance is its own front. Indeed for a play whose tone toggles between comedy and melodrama, "Hat's" plot is grimly dark. Nearly every character cheats on their spouse; relapse is rampant; Jackie, recently released from prison, fires a gun in the apartment of the man he suspects Veronica cheated with (the titular "motherf*cker"), jeopardizing his freedom. In this way, Ralph is emblematic. He preaches AA's philosophy, enjoying the admiration his success with sobriety has earned him within the program. In a confrontation with Jackie, however, we learn he holds more nihilistic, self-rationalizing views about life, asking aloud, "Why follow a bunch of rules that don't matter when we're all going to die anyway?" Victor Mack is captivating in the role, bringing to life a character who, despite his bottomless charm, has perhaps never discovered the core beneath his various masks. The play's other standout performance comes from Gilberto Martin del Campo as Jackie's cousin Julio. A mixture of warm sentimentality and bitterness, del Campo's Julio longs to love and be loved, and yet lashes out repeatedly at the cousin who's spurned and used him. It's especially disappointing when Guirgis turns Julio into a one-note joke toward the play's end, an effeminate brute who compares himself ad nauseum to Jean Claude Van Damme. San Nicholas, so good last year in "Richard III" and "Twist Your Dickens" is a little thin in this role. He plays Jackie's cagey defensiveness for laughs, but offers little depth or complexity. His big moment of anger with Julio is powerful, but, unfortunately, it's an exception. The play ends on a note of sad irresolution, but really, if one is not fond of its comedy, it's the note that's sustained throughout. Characters attempt either to confront their pain, or create chaos escaping it. It's a glum snapshot of a community where hope and good faith are in short supply, and everyone's a motherf*cker in her own way. "The Motherf*cker with the Hat" at the Artist's Rep Theater through March 30th. http://www.artistsrep.org/onstage/2013---2014-season/the-motherf%5E%5Eker-with-the-hat.aspx Photos by Owen Carey