Lanny Nagler Photo
Ben Cole and Royce Johnson in The Motherfucker With the Hat
You quite possibly read it here first: the full unexpurgated title of the latest play to tie The Paper of Record in knots, the play that's currently receiving its American regional premiere in Hartford. When it was on Broadway last season, the New York Times and other media delicately called it The Motherf**ker With the Hat. Hartford's TheaterWorks renders the unprintable word more colorfully, but no less coyly, as Motherf#?*&r.
Well, faint hearts, you can stop reading right here if your eyes would be offended by the title of The Motherfucker With the Hat, because you'd hear that term and others like it in almost every sentence of this play. The tantalizing title, along with comedian Chris Rock in a lead role, got attention for the play in New York, where it was nominated for several Tonys and other awards. TheaterWorks, which scored a coup by grabbing the first regional performance rights, is marketing the piece as "uproarious" and "raucous." But it's more accurately a blistering anti-comedy that fully delivers on its provocatively cheeky moniker.
Motherfucker (hell, this is the alternative press, let's flaunt it) is the latest by Stephen Adly Guirgis. The playwright, mentored in Philip Seymour Hoffman's LAByrinth Theater Company, has carved a niche out of the dirty asphalt of Spanish Harlem and peopled it with a multiethnic cross-section of volatile humanity. Here, as in previous works like Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train and Our Lady of 121st Street (seen last year at Amherst College), Guirgis uses lushes and losers, jailbirds and jive artists—and their almost lyrically obscene but persistently hilarious conversation—to dig into moral dilemmas.
Jackie (Ben Cole) is an alcoholic and petty criminal just returned from his latest stint "upstate" and trying to go straight and dry. He lives with Veronica (Clea Alsip), an unapologetic cokehead. They've been together, passionately but precariously, since middle school. Jackie previously screwed around with his addiction counselor and Veronica has lately been bonking some mofo who carelessly left his hat on the dresser, as the violently jealous Jackie notices.
This dysfunctional couple is paralleled by Ralph (Royce Johnson), Jackie's AA sponsor, who's into slick self-help nostrums, nutritional drinks and promiscuity, and his lonely wife Victoria (Vanessa Wasche), who's fed up with Ralph's manipulative egotism. Jackie's sardonic cousin Julio (Var?n Ayala) is a relatively calm presence among these restless spirits—until Jackie is betrayed by his best friend and Julio launches into his fantasy Jean-Claude van Damme persona.
Everyone here is deep into self-delusion, everyone is hurting and lost and defensive, and everyone yells about it, scabrously but eloquently. All five performances in Tazewell Thompson's vigorous production are riveting, though Johnson stands out in the most complex role, a man driven equally by a passion for self-improvement and by self-loathing. Alsip and Cole are effectively turbulent, but are odd choices for the Puerto Rican lovers, as they are both blond Anglos.
Serving as backdrop for all three of the play's locations is Donald Eastman's eloquently simple set: dirty gray walls spattered with dark debris, as if they've just taken an explosion—which, as witnesses to this comedy of hurt, they have.
The Motherfucker With the Hat plays through Dec. 4 at TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., Hartford, (860) 527-7838, theaterworkshartford.org.