If the fresh new off-off-Broadway revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherf**cker with the Hat means to play off the Off-Broadway success in 2014-15 of Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy and the buzz about his new Netflix series with Baz Luhrmann, The Get Down, then more power to it.
The play debuted on Broadway in 2011 starring Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale. It’s a darn good script. Now, without a big-name cast or a big space, director Peter Jensen, Artistic Director of the T. Schreiber Studio & Theatre, and a top-notch creative team have crafted a compelling production blessed with an equally top-drawer cast.
The play is a dark, funny, profane journey into the lives of a set of New York City Latinos afflicted with drug and alcohol addictions but trying to give their better natures a chance. The story arc begins at a high point, with the play’s most hopeful scene. Jackie (Omar Bustamante) comes home to his girlfriend Veronica (Viviana Valeria) in buoyant spirits: On parole after two years in an upstate prison for drug dealing, he has just scored a promising porter job at an apartment building. Meanwhile Veronica has been on the phone with her mother, her side of the hilarious conversation showing us that addiction and bad choices run in her family.
Then, amid the humor and the fresh joy, a sudden reversal of mood comes as a shock. And we’re off to the dangerous races.
The cast handles Guirgis’s script, a mix of boiling profanity and elevated language, with remarkable naturalism. Jackie’s AA sponsor, the 41-year-old Ralph (Casey Braxton), is a fascinating character prone to flowery speech. Many years sober, and a seeming paragon of healthy living, this yoga-pushing, juice-mixing New Age bro still has one foot in the street, enabling him to connect with a younger, still-troubled man like Jackie. And he has apparently helped Jackie immensely. But Ralph’s smooth, cocky attitude – “I might be an asshole, but I’m fucking limber, yo!” – hides a nihilistic philosophy of life, a deadly coping method that has deadened his relationship with his wife Victoria (Jill Bianchini) and undercut a good deal more than that, too.
Broadway stages have technology and infrastructure for rapid and thorough set changes. This tiny theater lacks all that, yet scenic designer Miguel Urbino gives us a marvel of speedy changes to help pace the story’s shifts among its settings. In Veronica and Jackie’s apartment, Jackie discovers the evidence that sets the plot in motion. Ralph and Victoria’s place is decorated to reflect Ralph’s personality perfectly. And Jackie takes refuge in the apartment of his cousin Julio (Robby Ramos), another wonderful creation, a happily married, spirulina-serving “mariconcito” in his own words – “a mary jane, a patsy” – who has his cousin’s back through a fraught relationship that goes back, like Jackie and Veronica’s, to middle school.
Ramos makes captivating a scene where Julio unloads his festering grievances on his irresponsible relation, culminating bitterly: “It was a long time ago, and it was yesterday.” Bianchini makes wrenching a scene where Victoria, clad in leopard pants, reveals to Jackie the emptiness of her marriage. Valeria brilliantly channels Veronica’s spitfire anger into a fully rounded character we fall for more deeply with every curse out of her mouth.
And Jackie and Ralph’s climactic confrontation is the apotheosis of a debate on manhood that’s been simmering throughout. The answers to its questions are maddeningly elusive to these men, who came out of a culture of machismo ill-equipped to deal with the realities of love and conflict – of life. But the arc tilts hesitantly upward, with a tiny hopeful moment at the very end, suggesting that all may not be lost for these deeply flawed, terribly human characters.
The acting, script, and direction, enhanced by evocative music, sound, and lighting and by Sherry Martinez’s dead-on costumes, are interlocking facets of a gem of a production. The Motherf**cker with the Hat runs through Nov. 19 at the Gloria Maddox Theatre at T. Schreiber Studio in Manhattan. For tickets visit the Schreiber Studio website.