The Motherf**ker With the Hat: Theater Review
South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa (runs through January 27)
Tony Sancho, Larry Bates, Elisa Bocanegra, Cristina Frias, Christian Barillas
Stephen Adly Guirgis
Michael John Garcés
This Southern California staging of Stephen Adly Guirgis' play boasts superb acting, keen pacing, effective design and even credible fight scenes.
Newly paroled and recovering alcoholic Jackie (Tony Sancho) arrives at the pigsty apartment of his girlfriend Veronica (Elisa Bocanegra) bearing flowers and the buoyant news that he’s landed a job (with prospects!). We already know that she has been snorting cocaine from under a man’s hat that she leaves conspicuously on a night table downstage left where Jackie cannot help but notice, then sniffing the rumpled bedsheets where he detects “the smell of Aqua Velva and dick.” When he confronts her, she lies and he storms out to seek the tough love and support of his AA sponsor Ralph (Larry Bates), trying to check his impulse to get a gun to shoot the titular mystery man.
Stephen Adly Guirgis (Our Lady of 121st Street; In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings; The Little Flower of East Orange) has made his reputation with flavorfully theatrical plumbings of the Lower Depths, but he made a successful move to Broadway with this comparatively more congenial piece that takes a long detour into boulevard farce before resolving into a more conventional story of confronting addiction by accepting the maturity of personal responsibility. The show originated at the Public Theater and moved to Broadway starring Chris Rock, Bobby Cannavale and Annabella Sciorra.
Guirgis established his personal voice very early, with vividly imagined street talk creating colorful fantasias of the degradation of the deprived. He endows his compulsively verbal characters with witty repartee that may be far from the drawing room, yet refashions established comic strategies from the high life to the low.
Absent the star power of the Broadway production, this homegrown production boasts superb acting, keen pacing, effective design and even credible fight scenes.
Director Michael John Garcés of the Cornerstone Theatre Company keeps the milieu honest as well as gritty, allowing the insights of the text to emerge credibly from the off-the-wall comedy. Sancho makes the somewhat dim Jackie charismatic and pitiable, purging sentiment and posturing. Bates makes a multi-dimensional, orotund snake-in-the-grass as Ralph, capable of speaking candid truths with outsized hypocriticism and Christian Barillas maintains a splendid balance in the scene-stealing part of Jackie’s superficially effeminate cousin Julio, burrowing into elements of caricature while keeping the portrayal unflaggingly human.