Stephen Adly Guirgis's controversially titled The Motherf**ker With the Hat, playing now at GableStage, is raw, darkly hilarious, and certainly one of the funniest plays you'll see this season. It bursts with profanity while circling the wagons on the flawed nature of men and women, their counterfeit moral codes, and their proclivity for addiction.
It's more than just an awesomely titled play. It's taut with tension that's heightened by razor-sharp, whip-smart dialogue and propelled by a talented and well-directed cast.
And it's funny as hell.
The Motherf**ker With the Hat
The Motherf**ker With the HatBy Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Joseph Adler. Through February 5 at GableStage at the Biltmore, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables; 305-445-1119; gablestage.org. Tickets cost $50, or $47.50 for seniors.
Jackie (Arturo Fernandez) has been clean and sober for months. One afternoon he comes home to his live-in cokehead girlfriend, Veronica (Gladys Ramirez), to tell her he has just landed a great job. But before the two can celebrate a new life of legitimate employment, he spots a hat that doesn't belong to him on a table in a corner of the one-bedroom apartment. He confronts Veronica and becomes enraged with jealousy. Jackie digs his face into the hat and smells it. He does the same with their pillows and mattress. "This bed smells like Aqua Velva and dick!" he cries out, pointing an accusatory finger at his old lady.
In a Jimi Hendrix "Hey Joe" moment, hotheaded and lovesick Jackie gets himself a gun. He wants to shoot the motherf**ker with the hat. He seeks out his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Ralph (Ethan Henry), to help him with his dilemma. And that is only the first shit to hit the fan.
As Jackie tries to put together the pieces of the puzzle, eyeing an always sharp-dressed neighbor as the possible aforementioned motherf**ker, his world begins to crack. Ralph is concerned Jackie will turn to the bottle to numb his pain. And when Jackie has an incident with the gun, he enlists his health-nut cousin Julio (Alex Alvarez) to help hide the weapon.
At the heart of the tale is Jackie and Ralph's ever-evolving relationship. Ralph is not only Jackie's sponsor but also his closest friend. That friendship becomes strained as the play wears on, and it doesn't help that Ralph is a former addict himself and has some secrets of his own.
There's a real camaraderie between the two actors who portray Jackie and Ralph. Their performances shine through the quick banter, with Henry's strong-willed Ralph setting the tone for Jackie's salvation (or damnation). Fernandez's depiction of the streetwise Puerto Rican Jackie walks a tightrope between vulnerability and rage, and pretty much nails it every time.
With his lanky frame and lithe movements, Fernandez uses his entire body to encapsulate Jackie's mounting ardor. He loves Veronica fiercely, while at the same time expressing that coming home to her is like feeding his balls to Godzilla. Alvarez's hilarious turn as Jackie's effeminate, no-nonsense, and loyal cousin Julio brought the house down when I attended.
For this production, director Joseph Adler has had GableStage's diminutive stage broken into three sections. An elevated platform in the middle serves as Jackie and Veronica's apartment, and the ends of the stage are the play's other locations; it's another clever design by Lyle Baskin.
The play is brilliantly scripted by Guirgis, who is nothing if not prolific. He has written not only for TV shows such as The Sopranos but also for film, and he penned The Little Flower of East Orange, which was staged at the Public Theater in New York and starred Ellen Burstyn. He has developed a significant working relationship with Philip Seymour Hoffman and appeared in the actor/director's Jack Goes Boating. Guirgis is also a former violence prevention counselor who does workshops in prisons and hospitals.
The Motherf**ker With the Hat opened on Broadway last spring with Chris Rock in a lead role, and it received impressive reviews.
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Jackie's and Ralph's stories — as well as that of disaffected wife Victoria (Betsy Graver) — are about flawed people and moral ambiguity. Personal demons and consequences drown these all-too-real and all-too-damaged people. They're searching for escape, be it with sex, drugs, or fruit juice.
Only Jackie seems to find clarity in the pain. In one of the turning points in the story, he rebukes Ralph by saying, "Your worldview ain't mine." It's a loaded statement, but one where we see Jackie clearly finding his way through the detritus.
This play articulates to the audience that, whether it's karma or just plain bad luck, what we do comes back to us. Dealing with it one day at a time is, like any other ideology, really a matter of interpretation and perspective. Without reason, personal conviction, or simply the ability to say, "Fuck it," every dogma is its own curse.