Ask me if I’d like to see a 105-minute one-act play about addicts and con men, and I’ll think more than twice about an affirmative answer.
But I’d be sorry to have missed “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” based on that description, because playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis gives us an honest and funny – though extremely profane – portrait of a quintet of New Yorkers trying to get by despite poverty, addiction and lack of opportunity.
Recovering alcoholic Jackie (Steven Lone), recently sprung from a drug-dealing stretch at Rikers, comes home to coke-addicted girlfriend Veronica (Sandra Ruiz) in an up mood, bearing flowers and other small gifts – and with the announcement that he’s gotten “a job with advancement possibilities” at a property management company.
He’s looking for a little romance, but finds Veronica strangely surprised and addled by his appearance. The reason becomes clear when Jackie spies a “man hat that ain’t my hat” on the table, and a sniff test of the bed reveals the scent of “Aqua Velva and dick” on the sheets.
After exchanging ugly words, Jackie goes to see his AA sponsor Ralph D (Laurence Brown). Ralph has problems of his own – disaffected and angry wife Victoria (Whitney Brianna Thomas) is just one – but he manages to talk Jackie out of his homicidal intent. Ralph also offers him a place to stay until he calms down.
The next day Jackie and Ralph visit Jackie’s gay cousin Julio (Esteban Andres Cruz), a stand-by-me guy who has the most affecting monologue of the lot when he explains why.
These are people struggling – to make a living, to stay clean and sober, to rise above the cycles of lying, deceit and violence in which they find themselves. Most of the problems are of their own doing, and it’s a testament to Guirgis’ skill and the cast’s fine work that their attempts to work through the problems are both riveting and often darkly funny.
Lone’s portrayal of Jackie will make your heart ache. Here’s a decent guy with good intentions and a short fuse, desperately trying to escape his own shortcomings and make a good life with someone who does not make that easy.
Ruiz’s Veronica is volatile and difficult, addicted to cocaine and Jackie in equal measure, and though she has a sharp tongue, the hurt beneath shows.
Brown’s Ralph D is everything you always feared in an inspirational leader – charismatic and smooth-talking enough to have convinced himself that he really is as good as he sounds.
Thomas, a newcomer from San Francisco, plays Victoria (the play’s least well defined character) as angry and all too familiar with her husband’s weaknesses.
Chicago transplant Cruz brings a gay sensibility and an utterly engaging stage presence that starts the minute he walks on. His Cousin Julio seems the most in control psychologically, though his marriage to a woman suggests there’s some confusion somewhere. But Cruz is a total hoot to watch.
Andrew Hull should get a medal for his clever set with sections that open and close to delineate three separate locations. Director Rob Lutfy brightens the scene-change waits with choreographed movement. Lutfy also keeps the pace snappy while the actors make us care about these basically unsympathetic characters.
Shelly Williams’ costumes are appropriate. Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound and R. Craig Wolf’s lighting add to the look of the show.
Leave the kids and Grandma at home; the language and concepts, like the situations, are raw. But it’s a heck of an evening of theater.
“The Motherf**ker with the Hat” plays through June 22 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town.
Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.
Tickets: (619) 337-1525 or HERE.
To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.