PLAY DC: “The Motherfucker with the Hat” @ The Studio Theatre
Alan Zilberman | Feb 6, 2013 | 2:00PM |

The Motherfucker with the Hat is an excellent title for a play, and not just because it’s profane. Repeat the title aloud or in your mind, with a strong emphasis on “hat.” Has a nice cadence to it, right? Stephen Adly Guirgis’ new play is all about working-class New Yorkers for whom profanity is not vulgar, but part of their punctuation. They’re smart but uneducated, and while they’re in tune with their feelings, they’re self-destructive and occasionally thoughtless. Characters like this create opportunities for comedy and drama in equal measure, and the high-energy production never slackens.

When Jackie (Drew Cortese) returns home to his girlfriend Veronica (Rosal Colón), his day has such promise. He just got a job, his parole is going well, and he’s successfully staying sober. But once Veronica takes a shower, he sees the hat. He knows it isn’t his, so he heedlessly picks a fight with Veronica. She tells him he’s acting fucking crazy – Veronica is a bit of a loudmouth – so he leaves for the home of Ralph (Quentin Maré), his AA sponsor. Ralph is older, more of an aging hippie type, and he successfully talks Jackie down as his wife Victoria (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) verbally abuses him. Soon Jackie figures out who the motherfucker with the hit is, and he goes to confront him with his cousin Julio (Liche Ariza), who offers to go Van Damme on his ass.

Unlike a lot of recent Studio Theatre productions, The Motherfucker with the Hat does not push the boundaries of the medium. It is conventional insofar that the all the characters have names, and the chronology is straightforward. Guirgis is much more interested in character flaws, and how they lead to a weird combination of compassion and betrayal. With the exception of Cousin Julio, all the characters fuck each other over to some degree, but Guirgis never judges them once. Even when Jackie relapses and shows up drunk at Veronica’s, there is affection beneath his raw exterior and inelegant language. As with the rest of the play, Jackie talks passionately, and at a breathless pace. Ralph and Cousin Julio are slightly more deliberate with their lines, yet the dialogue is hurried enough so the play unfolds at a steady clip.

At first, the profanity calls attention to itself. Jackie and Veronica almost say “fuck” and its derivations more than they conjugate verbs, but by the time we get to know their world, the foul language is nearly invisible. Like Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, rhythm interests Guirgis more than content. Pervasive language is also how the play hits its high and low points. When Jackie describes how sex with Veronica will make her float above the bed, it is funny and we know exactly what he means. When Ralph bluntly describes his harsh reality, each caustic word is meant to destroy Jackie’s measure positive outlook. Playwrights often use language as a weapon, so what The Motherfucker with the Hat interesting is how language can also be a diversion, or a shield.

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Characters like this require powerful performances, and the cast has no problem with the demanding material. Jackie and Ralph are at the center of the play – their relationship goes through a wringer – so Cortese and Maré must preserve the complications of friendship between two recovering alcoholics, emotional baggage and all. After the curtain call, Cortese is still visibly moved by what’s required of him, which makes sense since his character constantly veers between desperation and rage. Victoria is slightly more functional (she hates her life but knows how to laugh about it), and Fernandez-Coffey internalizes this self-loathing with a contorted face and a weathered voice. In the most comic performance, Ariza is delightful as Cousin Julio. He’s an effeminate eccentric who values family above all else, so Julio is the voice of reason among these selfish people. It is infectious how Ibiza has fun with the part. The casual way he offers an empanada to Jackie during a crisis is an early indication of how Julio wears his heart on his sleeve, yet Ariza finds a way to also hit a note of lingering sadness.

The characters in The Motherfucker with the Hat may resort to extreme behavior, yet they’re easily relatable. They’re motivated by a queasy combination of jealousy, anger, fear, lust, and loyalty. They destroy their relationships faster than they can rebuild them. Director Serge Seiden keeps the set and production values on the simple side – there are few props and the stage is austere, except for a bed or a couch – so the audience can focus on the intense, rapid fire dialogue. Jackie’s mini-crisis reaches a resolution, as it must, and there are hardly any answers for him. But compared to Ralph’s self-fulfilling nihilism, Cortese and Seiden still somehow find a sense of hope that’s so beleaguered that it’s almost brave.

The Motherfucker with the Hat is at the Studio Theatre until March 10th. Buy tickets here!

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