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From the Green Room: A Play by Any Other Name

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Leave it to Chris Rock to make his Broadway debut in a play more controversial for its title than for its content. I would imagine that The Motherf**ker With the Hat may well mark the first time that particular epithet has graced the marquee of any Broadway theatre, or any other theatre marquee for that matter. Motherf**ker would seem to be a term of art unlikely to attract the audience in search of The Lion King and Wicked. Off Broadway, maybe; Off, Off Broadway, perhaps even more likely, but “the Great White Way?” What could they have been thinking?

There is of course shock value. There are those who will put down their $131.50 (which according to Variety is the top ticket) simply for the title and the cocktail party conversation it could provide. It is a title you could dine out on. It reminds me of an earlier example of the same kind of thing. Back in 1996 the British playwright Mark Ravenhill wrote one of those gritty sex-and-drugs dramas the British were fond of at the time called Shopping and F**cking. It was a play that met with mixed reviews when it opened in London, but as it happened, it was then taken on tour.

One of the stops that summer was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a festival that I happened to be attending. Now the Edinburgh Fringe Festival is the kind of extravaganza that runs theatrical performances of all kinds from early in the morning to late in the evening in any nook or cranny where you can fit a stage and a dozen or so chairs. The program of festival events was as thick as a small-town phone book. While the town was filled with theatregoers—the Edinburgh Festival was going on at the same time, as was the Royal Tattoo and a number of other events as well—many of the Fringe events had limited audiences. There was so much going on it was difficult to attract an audience. Difficult, that is, unless your name was Shopping and F**king.

No less sensation-hungry than any of the other theatre mavens, I managed to score a couple of tickets for one of the performances. At Edinburgh theatres are booked all day long. When one show ends, the audience clears out and the next audience, often for a different show, already lined up and waiting marches in. The line for the Ravenhill play, which was using one of the larger theatres, stretched two and three wide around the block. It was by far the largest audience for any of the shows I saw that summer.

I don’t know that the play was either particularly interesting or well done. Its subject matter was somewhat controversial, but not more so than any of the others in the genre. Had it been called “Shopping and Sex,” I somehow doubt it would have been doing as well. Indeed, after the title, the show itself seemed kind of tame. From the reviews of The Motherf**ker With the Hat, while it would seem to be a much more exciting theatrical experience, it would seem that it too is not quite as wild as its title would indicate.

Later when I returned to the States, I decided that despite Shopping and F**king’s mediocre dramatic impact, it was the kind of play I wanted to have in my library. Living in Western Pennsylvania, I didn’t have any local access to a bookstore devoted to the theatre. Of course the best source for books on things theatrical then and probably still now was The Drama Book Shop in Manhattan. So I called to see if they had a copy. A young lady answered the phone.

“Do you have a copy of Shopping and—…”

“Don’t say it,” she said.

It turns out that whatever Motherf**ker With a Hat needed it wasn’t notoriety. Tony nominations are out and the play is nominated in just about every category for which it is eligible: Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Play, Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play, Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Best Direction of a Play, and of course Best Play, to name only some. Imagine some presenter on the 65th annual Tony Awards Show on CBS announcing the winner for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, Bobby Cannavale for Motherf–.

“Don’t say it.”

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About Jack Goodstein