SpeakEasy Stage Company’s first production of the season, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Motherf**ker with the Hat”, presents not a few challenges. Giurgis, who has a history of challenging work (“Jesus Hopped the A Train”, “Our Lady of 121st Street”, “Last Days of Judas Iscariot”) has at last found a secular, if unprintable, title. A Tony nominee for Best Play of 2011, it’s the first in a very promising year of SpeakEasy regional premieres, including two nominees for Best Play of 2012, “Other Desert Cities” and “Clybourne Park”, (the latter being the eventual Tony as well as Pulitzer winner). “Motherf**ker” is a short, nine scene five-hander about the discovery of that hat, the suspicions it arouses, and the effects of its mysterious appearance on the extremely dysfunctional characters in this small interrelated group.
Jackie (Jaime Carrillo), the main character, a parolee with a history of using and dealing, discovers the unexplained hat after he arrives home as his partner Veronica (his girlfriend since childhood) is about to take a shower. Veronica herself (Evelyn Howe) is a current drug addict. Jackie’s sponsor in a 12-step program, Ralph D. (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), is a former addict who has his own issues with his shrewish wife Victoria (Melinda Lopez). The fifth wheel of the group is Jackie’s Cousin Julio (Alejandro Simoes). All of them are former or current users and abusers of drugs, alcohol, sex and/or people. As directed by David R. Gammons, they perform a complicatedly choreographed series of exercises in various permutations and combinations, enabling each of them to have a chance to reveal just how much of a pain in the asterisk each of she or he is.
The cast handles the difficult task of presenting basically unpleasant people, trapped in their constricting roles, with varying degrees of humanity. Simoes, in the showiest role with most of the funniest lines, conveys the complex pansexual straight man with excellent timing. Carrillo, Lopez and Howe all come in to their own in the final scenes of the play. Maurice Emmanuel Parent is excellent in the unsympathetic role of the expert sponsor with extraordinary baggage. All do very well under the capable direction of David R. Gammons. The problem is, despite several hilarious lines here and there, we never get to know (or care) about any of the characters as Giurgis has written them. He certainly seems to have captured the speech and the mannerisms of his inner city troupe for whom we might feel empathy but little else.
Giurgis has stated that one of the points he wanted to make is that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference, and these people are certainly not indifferent to one another. Jackie claims that “nobody knows nobody”. Ralph D. advises his sponsee Jackie to “stop making lists and start living the damn list”. Victoria describes Ralph D. as having a “PhD in manipulation and self-loathing”. Cousin Julio admits to Jackie that he doesn’t “like (him) very much, you’re a loser”. Veronica feels her relationship with Jackie is “broke” and cannot be fixed. And Ralph D.’s view of relationships is that “anyone you meet before the age of 25... that’s your friend; anyone after that, that’s just an associate, someone to pass the time”. Later in the play, Ralph D. also says “sometimes the truth is ugly”.
The sole saving reality beneath all this vitriol is, as Jackie puts it, “It’s funny how people can be more than one thing”. Despite the mistrust, the pervasive addictions and the impoverishment that surrounds them, there may still be love. The fundamental problem they all share is their inability to articulate it. There are a good number of malicious barbs thrown about, some of them incisive and effective, others bordering on sitcom (albeit X-rated), that manage to amuse and engage us.
What isn’t engaging is the very predictable revelation of just whose hat that was and what that ownership signifies. The revelation we are expected to experience doesn’t come as a surprise, spoiling the intended payoff and exposing the plot’s basic flaw. What we have here is almost two hours of verbal pyrotechnics about, paradoxically, the failure to communicate. In the end, the play is a whole lot less than the sum of its parts; the characters haven’t grown much, and we haven’t learned much. A lot of talent and attention have finally pretty much signified nothing, to which the only logical comment is (bleep)!