From Here to Profanity

The Motherf**ker is rudely funny—until it starts navel-gazing

Addicts are, at heart, incurable romantics. They're always hopefully, naively chasing the buzz from that first high, the rush from that first drink. And they're always disappointed.

That's pretty close to the experience one gets in viewing The Motherf**ker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis, now at Dobama Theatre. This rude, profane (no asterisks in the dialogue) and randy comedic drama bolts out of the gate at a furious pace.

But by the one-hour mark of this 100-minute play, verbosity overcomes all the sexy sizzle, leaving one jonesing for another hit like those provided by the earlier scenes. Happily, there is a small gem buried in all those latter words that makes the whole enterprise a net success.

The play is set in the Puerto Rican community of NYC, where recovering alcoholic and drug dealer Jackie is just out of the slammer. He's visiting his longtime (since 8th grade) lover Veronica, a coke addict with a smokin' bod and a fiery temper. Proud of his new job with FedEx, Jackie is bearing gifts and ready for an extended f**k party.

But the title is explained when Jackie spies another man's hat on a table. Suspicions ignited, he expresses his doubts about Veronica's faithfulness in startlingly direct terms. Under his aggressive questioning, Ronnie reacts with rage, flinging insults at Jackie's masculinity, heritage and anything else she can conjure up.

Dejected, Jackie leans on his AA sponsor, Ralph D, who offers the young man sage advice. Now a mellow advocate of the clean life, Ralph is a calm and trustworthy port in Jackie's storm.

So Jackie unloads his romantic burdens on Ralph ("Bein' in love with Veronica is like feeding your balls to Godzilla.") And Ralph attempts to calm the waters with soothing aphorisms. But a monumental clusterf**k is in store when more is revealed about these three people.

As Jackie and Veronica, Jeremy Kendall and Anjanette Hall are well-matched, believably fighting each other to a draw in their lewd and lurid confrontations. Although the playwright never provides much depth to their relationship, he imbues their scenes with a bracing immediacy that is both hilarious and a bit terrifying.

Charles Kartali is warm and avuncular as Ralph, the perfect image of a reformed substance abuser. But his harridan wife, Victoria (played with simmering ferocity by Bernadette Clemens), signals that all may not be as it seems on the surface.

We also learn more about Jackie from his cousin Julio (a simultaneously simpering and ripped Jimmie Woody), who speaks affectingly about Jackie's good heart.

After the big plot reveal, about halfway through the show, Guirgis' dialogue slowly slips into lame self-reflection and analysis. This slide mirrors the performers' Puerto Rican accents that gradually fade as the show progresses. The result is an overall lack of intensity that even a brief stage fight can't rescue.

Fortunately, Kartali draws a fascinating portrait of Ralph as a resolutely immoral yet painfully honest man. His nuanced performance gives the script a thematic heft the play otherwise wouldn't attain.

With the cast performing on a tight three-level stage designed by Connie Hecker, director Dianne Boduszek keeps the pace lively for as long as possible. And even though a couple scenes, especially with Julio, feel a bit mechanical and forced, there is a sure sense of character is this piece.

That is f**king good news for all theatergoers who refuse to be scared away by abrasive titles.

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Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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