The Motherfucker With The Hat – Review

MOFO

Beau Dixon (l) as Ralph D. and  Haysam Kadri (r) as  Jackie. Photo credit, Brian Harder.

The Motherfucker With the Hat

October 15 – November 2, 2013

Martha Cohen Theatre

http://www.atplive.com/2013-2014-Season/Motherf–ker/index.html

Listen to my review on CBC Eyeopener on Monday Oct. 21st at 7:40 am at http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/

 

Just because a man is sober, has worked the AA system and finally kicks whatever substance had their claws in him, doesn’t mean he’s a good person. It just means he’s clean. This is the message the less than angelic AA sponsor Ralph D. conveys to the newly sober yet still troubled Jackie near the end of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker With the Hat. It’s a good message and an interesting jumping off point that is unfortunately quashed by thin narrative and silo acting in this slight but amusing play.

Set in modern-day New York, the play is a funny fast-paced foul-mouthed story about feuding Puerto Rican-American childhood sweethearts Jackie (Haysam Kadri) and Veronica (Carmen Aguirre). Jackie, newly sober, hot-headed but whiny more than dangerous despite his stint in jail, accuses Veronica of infidelity when a mysterious man’s hat appears in their apartment. Veronica, a coke-addicted hell-cat of a gal, stands her ground with Jackie, denying any wrongdoing while dosing out her own brand of spitfire anger. Jackie’s sponsor, the mellow-talking, stay positive Ralph D. (Beau Dixon) tries to keep Jackie from blowing up, but ultimately proves himself to be a very poor advisor indeed. Meanwhile, Ralph is having his own challenges with his ‘in-recovery’, ball-busting wife Victoria (Melanee Murray) who sees Ralph for the dog he really is. Outside this maze of addiction and recovery stands Jackie’s effete but straight oddball cousin, Julio (Francisco Trujillo), who agrees to help Jackie in his quest for revenge despite a history of Jackie’s ill and often hurtful treatment of him.

In what could be described as an all you can eat profanity buffet, Guirgis’ script is littered comically with gutter language at every turn. In one of her softer moments, Veronica prefaces her admission of love for Jackie by saying, “You know I’d rather kick a fucking three-legged kitten down a flight of stairs than admit something like that”.  Jackie doesn’t abandon his litany of f-bombs either when Ralph suggests they pray. “God?”, Jackie says. “Hello again. You may remember me. I’ve prayed like fifty-seven fucking times to you already.” To Guirgis’ credit, these moments get great laughs from the audience, long after the shock value of the words wear off. We laugh because the language shrugs off any consideration. It’s real and appropriate and often renders these characters funny without their meaning to be. But laugh as we do, the script fails to deliver anything more than an entertaining moment-by-moment experience that wears thin as a satisfying story. Of course not every show needs a grand epiphany at its close, but that doesn’t excuse the ‘so what’ feeling we are left with here, ultimately rendering the humour pointless.

The shallow narrative construction however doesn’t stop the cast from giving it their all with the minor characters decidedly stealing the show. Aguirre’s Veronica is full-out Latina-tigress without once devolving into stereotype. She manages to internalize her character deep in her belly and  gives us a high-octane performance that is both hilarious and thoughtful. Murray has the difficult task of playing the only non-funny role as Victoria, an angry and betrayed woman grasping for relief. Her failed sexual scene with Jackie is one of the play’s few truly interesting moments and Murray gets the credit for making it work. But really, it’s Trujillo that shines the brightest as Cousin Julio with his hysterically swishy yet macho character that is as quick to talk about hair products as he is to reference Jean -Claude Van Damme. Going full camp without devolving into tired typecast is no small feat and Trujillo commands this fine line brilliantly. However, it’s his ability to show his dramatic side in two stunning scenes where he drops the comedy and explains to Jackie his hurt then his allegiance that finally brings real substance and heart to the play.

The thread in these supporting performances is that their best moments come not in dialogue, but effectively in monologue. Guirgis’ patter is meant to be automatic-weapon-fast, but in this production the interaction between characters feels more than slightly off.  To my ear it felt as though everyone was so focused on getting the language down pat that they forgot to actually listen to each other. Dixon’s serviceable performance as Ralph suffers somewhat from this but it can really be felt with Kadri’s Jackie who hits all the right dialogue notes but never really evolves into a fully present character.  As a classically trained Shakespearean actor, playing a substance abusing, potty mouthed Puerto Rican loser may be too much of a stretch for Kadri who seems uncomfortable in the role despite working hard in the production.

Director Ron Jenkins does his best to keep pace with Guirgis’ megawatt script but strangely resorts to gimmick with nonsensical bicycle riding during scene changes and nudity that is either unnecessary or more egregiously, in bad taste. A naked man emerging post shower from the bathroom is understandable if not needed, but a naked man riding a bicycle around the stage for no reason  is a cheap ploy that belies a confidence problem. No fault can be found with Narda McCarroll’s wonderful set design featuring the interior of a shoddy New York apartment easily changed-up to represent three different homes. Her lit windows hanging in elevation above the set representing the cramped and populated reality of life in the Big Apple are the perfect icing on her design.

The Motherfucker With the Hat was a good enough show when it premiered on Broadway in 2011 that it was nominated for 6 Tony Awards. But it wasn’t a good enough play to have walked away with single one. The Calgary production is a good enough play to entertain you in the moment, but as the usually quick to rise to their feet audience showed on opening night by overwhelmingly remaining seated, it’s not necessarily completely winning us over either.

RATING

For the profanity sensitive – This is by no means a family show or a production for those offended by language. Never mind the full male nudity. You are best to stay at home and watch re runs of 80’s sitcoms. SKIP IT

For potty-mouth lovers – Sure you’ll love the language and how expletives are thrown about like they are candy on Halloween. But please do take a moment to realize that unlike less sophisticated scripts, the language here is not simply to shock or titillate, it’s actually in deft service of the characters who use it. SEE IT

For occasional theatre goers – Sensitivities aside, this is a fun, entertaining play that moves quickly and asks nothing more of you than to watch and laugh at some pretty pathetic characters who stay that way. SEE IT

For theater junkies – It’s a toss-up between some impressive performances and occasionally interesting writing and a script that is ultimately weightless and a cast that often operates on a ‘my line, your line’ dynamic. MAYBE SEE IT

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5 comments

  1. S. Faulkner · October 20, 2013

    A MUST SEE.

    There is something drastically wrong with a review that reads “The Motherfucker With the Hat was a good enough show when it premiered on Broadway in 2011 that it was nominated for 6 Tony Awards. But it wasn’t a good enough play to have walked away with single one”.

    This one Calgary review is not better than the 6 Tony Awards nominated to Stephen Aldy Guirgis”The Motherfucker with the Hat’ which lost Best Play to ‘War Horse’ in 2011. The language clearly offended this reviewer who, lost in the profanity and nudity, misunderstood the play and misread some outstanding performances.

    “Guirgis’s characters are strivers who lack the language to “pass” in a white-collar world; they’re frustrated by limitations that they’re only half aware of, and that frustration provides much of the painful hilarity in their dialogue, which piles miscommunication on top of misunderstanding” (The New Yorker, April 25, 2011).

    As a fan of popular culture, I was intrigued and delighted by the performances and rather than shocked by the language or nudity (nudity which was in the original script btw – google it), found it quite clever. However upon doing a bit of light Sunday reading, I acknowledge that mixed reviews (even from NY critics) are what this show is about.

    Here in Calgary, laughter filled the house during the performance and once the thrill or shock of the language passed, we were presented with a love story. The audience was buzzing after the ATP show and the talk of love, deceit, lust, confusion, alcoholism, despair, desire, first love and the human condition filled the lobby. Great theatre sparks conversation and the outstanding performances and brave choices made with Stephen Aldy Guirgis’ play lit fires.

    Hats off to ATP for being brave enough to bring this to Calgary audiences.

    A MUST SEE.

    Here is a review of Guirgis’ play if you are interested in what this show is about:

    http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/theatre/2011/04/25/110425crth_theatre_als

    • Jessica Goldman · October 20, 2013

      Thank you for your comments. Discussion about theater and what critics think is always a good thing in my book! I wish there was more of it. However, I must object to your assertion that the language or nudity offended me. On the contrary. As I said in my review, “To Guirgis’ credit, these moments get great laughs from the audience, long after the shock value of the words wear off. We laugh because the language shrugs off any consideration. It’s real and appropriate and often renders these characters funny without their meaning to be.” Does that sound like I was offended? As for the nudity, again I was not offended, but I felt that it was unnecessary and gimmicky. I’m fine with nudity on stage when it is service of or advances the plot. Here I felt it was simply to shock, and that in my opinion is lazy direction. Yes, I am aware the nudity was in the original script, but it was also omitted from the Broadway production, I’d like to hope, because it was deemed irrelevant.

  2. S. Faulkner · October 20, 2013

    Thank you for encouraging people to weigh in on reviews and commenting on my response. I also wish more people would do the same speak up and listen to one another. A review is an opinion and this is one in which we may have to respect the right to disagree with one another.

    You wrote “It’s a toss-up between some impressive performances and occasionally interesting writing and a script that is ultimately weightless and a cast that often operates on a ‘my line, your line’ dynamic”. This is where I strongly disagree and felt you may have been put off by the language. Haysam Kadri as Jackie and Beau Dixon as Ralph pull off a believable fast and furious flight of words between each other that demonstrates their strong abilities as actors. I was lost in their characters and felt their words. Unlike Mamet or Pinter there are no pauses inserted. Pause. Pause. I applaud their pacing in this show and so did the audience.

    As far as the nudity is concerned, as an audience member who has seen both tasteful and senseless nude women on stage, TV, films, magazines and countless other forms of media, I felt the choice to honour Guirgis’ script and include male nudity was the right thing to do. The bicycle scene you refer to was my favourite part as it was a ‘fuck-you’ tip of the hat from our Motherfucker. It added another layer.

    The story line weighed in with heartfelt heaviness leaving the audience with questions about the characters on stage and space in which to reflect on one’s own life and the lives of others. How do our choices make us stronger and how do they destroy us? What is love and how do we let go – or can we? I find it amusing that right next door one can watch “The Great Gatsby” which has a similar plot, no? Kind of an upstairs/downstairs version of the same themes as I see it.

    ‘Motherfucker With The Hat’ takes us for a roller coaster ride and left me with a lump in my throat. Door open.

  3. Rosemary Bussi · October 21, 2013

    Enjoyed this play immensely. Excellent script and acting. Interesting cultural and possibly religious dichotomy: Latin versus African American view of love what it means and how we should live it and how does who you sleep with and when, relate to your view of love and commitment. I do not find the script at all shallow , in fact quite the opposite!

  4. Kevin Dunford · November 19, 2013

    It’s interesting that when someone critiques this play negatively they are quickly dismissed as being sensitive to the language. Coming from a blue collar world where I’ve heard and used this language every day and drug use and promiscuity was not unusual, I feel the play was lacking in meaning and relied on trashy characters and their foul behaviour to shock audiences . These people that the actors portrayed beautifully aren’t very interesting in real life and I came away thinking “so what?”.

    This form of theatre is in league with Gerry Springer and his poorly behaved roster of coached trash that is on television these days so the argument that its new in any way is weak.

    I liked the acting, they were all good, but I found nothing interesting in the story.

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