By Larry Taylor/Garden Grove Journal
South Coast Repertory’s current production of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ profane/ poetic, funny/sad “The Motherf**er With the Hat” is a success on two levels. It is both hilarious and touching.
A recent hit on Broadway, the play is deftly directed by Michael John Garces. He and his actors vividly show us the world and language of New York’s’ Puerto Rican barrio. The play’s characters glorify in colorful ghetto slang. Four letter words mingle with media-speak as people dream of a better life in this rich brew of pithy insults mixed with the lofty language of AA’s self-help vernacular.
At the beginning, Jackie (an excellent Tony Sancho), gets out of prison after two years for possession. Now addiction-free, his spirits are high as he bears gifts to his girlfriend, Veronica (a fiery Elisa Bocanegra). He brags that he has a job now, so they can get married and have kids. They can live the good life and have the usual stuff that goes with it, for example, a refrigerator that makes crushed ice.
As he enters her apartment, Veronica is on the phone chastising her mother for going with a guy who looks like a fish. “Ma, when you see him tonight: Take a moment. Take a breath,” she says. “Take a real good look and just ax yourself in all honesty—’Do I wanna (have sex) — or fry him up with a little adobo and paprika. . . ?’”
After their passionate greeting, Veronica leaves to get into something sexy. Jackie then notices a porkpie hat on a table — a “man hat,” he notes. Veronica re-enters and he points, declaring “that ain’t my hat.” And, he says that, what’s more, he detects the scent of Aqua Velva and sex on the sheets. Veronica gets upset, denies the accusation which sets off a colorfully venemous quarrel. (As throughout the play, the dialogue is choice but much is unrepeatable in a newspaper review.) This altercation leads him to the refuge of the home of his AA sponsor Ralph D (a wonderfully smooth talking Larry Bates)
Ralph, a verbal seducer, gets Jackie back on track, pointing out in AA jargon that he has entered“the cycle of self-sabotage.” In fact, though, he has helped considerably to keep him “clean.” Notwithstanding, Ralph has his own “hang-ups,” mainly womanizing. In fact, he has had something going with Veronica during Jackie’s prison-stay.
It works out that Jackie finds out about the affair and chaos ensues. Seeking solace at this point, he goes to Cousin Julio (an hysterically flamboyant Christian Barillas), a skinny gay gym instructor. In one of the funniest scenes, Julio threatens to “Van Damme” the husky Ralph. (The action star’s name becomes a verb here.) Julio is also the focus of one the play’s most poignant scenes as he reveals how he was ostracized growing up because he was “different.”
Besides being outrageously funny, the play is very serious regarding the struggle of two young people striving for love, trying to get out of the prison of addiction. The heart-rending conclusion is inconclusive – maybe they’ll make it, maybe they won’t. And, by the way, in the end, we find out who owned the hat
The “Mother With the Hat” can be seen through Jan. 27 at SCR’s Julianne Argyros Stage in Costa Mesa.