The play with arguably the most unprintable title in Broadway history now gets its West Coast Premiere at South Coast Repertory, once again providing mainstream publications, broadcast media, and SCR with the following dilemma—how to write or talk about a comedy whose title New York publications censored as either The ___________ With the Hat or The [Expletive] With the Hat or The Mother With The Hat (say what?), and whose “official” title is for most media the still unprintable The Motherf**cker With the Hat. Perhaps that’s why, despite the star power of Bobby Cannavale, Chris Rock, and Annabella Sciorra in the original New York cast and a total of six Tony nominations, popular playwright Stephen Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Broadway debut closed after a grand total of 28 previews and 112 performances.
Fortunately for South Coast Rep, The Motherfucker With The Hat (there, I’ve written it and will write it again) has generated enough buzz (it was the 8th most produced play in the U.S. last year) that even lacking name stars, that buzz—plus the rave reviews this sensational production has already generated—is likely to keep every one of the Julianne Argyros Stage’s 336 seats filled throughout its three-week run.
The hat in question turns out to have left by the titular mofo in the Times Square residential hotel room shared by fresh-out-of-jail recovering addict Jackie (Tony Sancho) and his still-using girlfriend Veronica (Elisa Bocanegra), a chapeau whose discovery sends Jackie into a fit of jealous rage. Add to that the smell of “Aqua Velva and dick” on the unwashed sheets of the bed his mother gave him and Jackie has proof positive that Veronica is as much of a tramp as her own mamacita, to which Veronica responds in what “family publications” would consider unprintable terms. (Having no such qualms, I’ll give you a taste of Veronica’s mouth: “Fuck your fuckin’ bitch-ass mother, and her bitch-ass big deal second-hand bed, and fuck her bitch-ass son, okay?!)
Were Jackie not in recovery, a motherfucker’s hat in close proximity to his and Veronica’s bed would likely send the ex-con heading straight for the nearest bottle. Instead he makes a beeline for the Hell’s Kitchen apartment of his sponsor Ralph D. (Larry Bates), whose request that wife Victoria (Cristina Frias) “blender up my sponsee a nice nutritional beverage, please?” is met with an offstage response (“Go fuck yourself, Ralph!”) which suggests that Ralph D.’s marriage may well be as rocky as Jackie’s own romantic relationship seems to be.
It doesn’t take us long to learn that there’s more than a coincidental connection between Jackie’s f’ed-up relationship and Ralph D.’s f’ed-up marriage. Actually, the only relatively solid coupling around would seem to be that of Jackie’s gay-acting Cousin Julio (Christian Barillas) and his spouse, the revelation of whose gender proves nearly as surprising as the identity of the other man Veronica’s been fooling around with, FYI not the motherfucker with the hat.
If The Motherfucker With The Hat (the play, not the actual motherfucker) were nothing more than a laugh-out-loud look at these five seriously flawed characters, it would likely still be worth a look-see for the hilarity factor alone, and for the couldn’t-be-better performances of the South Coast Rep cast.
This being Stephen Adly Guirgis (author of The Little Flower of East Orange, Our Lady Of 121st Street, In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings, and The Last Days of Judas Iscariot), audiences can rest assured that non-stop laughs are not all his latest play has to offer. The Motherfucker With The Hat turns out also to be a perceptive, thought-provoking look at the ways we human beings deal (or refuse to deal) with addiction, the nature of long-and-short-term relationships (and friendships), the many shades of human sexuality, and the possibility that there just may such a thing as “the love of one’s life,” though in Guirgis’s universe, this may be more a curse than the blessing it’s cracked up to be.
Helming The Motherfucker With The Hat at South Coast Rep is Cornerstone Theater Company Artistic Director Michael John Garcés (the Scenie-winning co-director of Making Paradise: The West Hollywood Musical and author of the crackerjack thriller The Web), and a bang-up job Garcés has done of keeping performances both outrageously funny and absolutely authentic and of maintaining a pace so lickety-split that its intermissionless two-hour running time (apparently considerably longer than on Broadway) zips by faster than you might imagine.
Sancho’s Jackie and Bocanegra’s Veronica are perfectly matched torrents of anger, lust, jealousy, outrage, and love, making for two of the most exciting performances you’ll be seeing anytime soon. Bates (who doesn’t have to deal with being Chris Rock being Ralph D) is terrific too as a fifteen-year clean-and-sober recovering addict whose demons are still there, even after a decade-and-a-half of helping other users overcome their additions. Frias gets the least developed part as Victoria, but she makes the very most of it. Best of all is the fierce and fabulous Barillas as the enigmatic, contradictory Cousin Julio, whose exit applause after one particularly splendidly-played scene suggests that this gay-acting straight man (or straight-behaving gay man) might well deserve his own spin-off providing Barillas is the star.
Not surprisingly, South Coast Repertory gives The Motherfucker With The Hat a production design that easily rivals Broadway’s best, beginning with Nephelie Andonyadis’s sensational scenic design, one which combines a revolving set with walls which slide on and offstage to create three very different living spaces, allowing us at times to see characters in all three of them and making for a series of rapid-fire scene changes underscored by sound designer Bruno Louchouarn’s jazzy original music. Leah Piehl’s costumes are precisely what we’d expect each of these characters to pick up at the local discount or second-hand shop. Tom Ontiveros lights all of the above to perfection.
Completing the artistic team is fight choreographer extraordinaire Edgar Landa, whose knock-down drag-out tussle between Sancho’s Jackie and Bates’ Ralph D. had one audience member asking Bates at the post-performance talkback whether he’d indeed been injured in the brawl. Highest praise indeed.
Joshua Marchesi is production manager and Kathryn Davies stage manager.
South Coast Repertory is to be saluted for taking chances on the play which dare not speak (or print) its name. (This is the OC after all.) Then again, daring program choices and thrillingly executed productions are the stock in trade of Orange County’s premier regional theater, quite possibly the finest of the Southern California bunch.
South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
January 15, 2013
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR