‘The Motherfucker With the Hat’
Through March 10
1501 14th St. NW
“The Motherfucker with the Hat’s” catchy title is mild when compared to its dialogue. Yes, the characters in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ latest play like their language raw (don’t even try to count the f-bombs — you’d run out of fingers and toes within minutes) and very often hilarious. But there’s nothing stilted about what’s being said onstage. Guirgis faithfully channels the words of their world, allowing these hardcore New Yorkers to tell their stories in their own way and it couldn’t be more authentic.
Now playing at Studio Theatre, “Hat” kicks off with Veronica (Rosal Colón), a 30-ish Nuyorican spitfire talking on the phone with her mom while cleaning her grungy studio apartment and doing the occasional line of cocaine. Veronica advises her mother to drop her new no good man who has a head like fish, saying, “Take a moment. Take a breath. Take a real good look and just ax yourself in all honesty, ‘Do I wanna fuck him or fry him up with a little adobo and paprika?’” Instantly, we know this girl — not terribly eloquent, but makes her point, and her heart is in the right place.
Enter Veronica’s longtime boyfriend Jackie (the excellent Drew Cortese) bearing good news. A newly sober parolee who’s recently finished a two year stint upstate for dealing drugs, Jackie has just landed a job with UPS. But what was supposed to be a celebratory evening of Carvel ice cream cake, lovemaking and movies for the passionate couple goes awry when he spies an unfamiliar hat in the apartment — a dark fedora, plain except for a small fiery red feather on the side. He suspects infidelity. A huge fight ensues, and Jackie, unsure whether to seek wisdom at an A.A. meeting or revenge, storms out.
His support system — such as it is — consists of his best friend and AA sponsor Ralph (Quentin Maré), a charmingly slimy guru-wannabe who runs a successful health drink startup with his also sober but embittered wife Victoria (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey). And while Ralph talks a lot of self-improvement, in his defense, he never claims to have anything to offer anyone other than sobriety. And then there’s Jackie’s seemingly gay cousin Julio (smartly underplayed Liche Ariza), a fastidious foodie/bodybuilder who’s married to a woman and harbors a secret passion for violence. Typically Jackie goes to him only when he needs something.
A wordy two hours without an intermission, “Hat” could potentially be tedious, but it’s not. Director Serge Seiden, who is gay, keeps things moving at a brisk clip. He also maintains an enviable balance of laughs and pathos. Debra Booth’s set is nicely subtle and serviceable — it works well, but never gets in the way. And the terrific five-person ensemble cast is especially strong. Each of the actors brilliantly embodies the play’s message: people aren’t always what they seem.
Without warning, Guirgis’ agile writing turns sharply from insults and slams to moments of stunning poignancy. When a drunken Jackie shows up at Veronica’s apartment eager to punish her for hurting him, she responds with her own hurt, reminding him of their shared dreams of children, a home in Yonkers, a future — all crushed by bad timing, poor decisions and drugs. Or when cousin Julio’s bouncy walk down memory lane morphs into an explanation of why he remains so very loyal to Jackie, citing a heartfelt memory from his early outcast adolescence when Jackie had his back. Heartbreaking moments.
A native of York City’s Upper West Side, the playwright is known for using the neighborhood’s urban mix in his work; and with “Hat,” an interesting cross section of these foul-mouthed, angry but hopeful, hurting and seriously funny folks are present and accounted for. They’re damaged people, in pain, masking hurt with bravado and humor, looking for love and trying to find their way.
“Hat” is a resonant play and Studio’s deeply affecting, always engaging production is alternately stinging and poignant.