Review – The Motherfucker with the Hat – National Theater

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Although this play did little to attract me at the start – something American with a swear word in the title – I was convinced to make the effort to see it by Fiona Mountford’s glowing review, at the level of exuberance that causes me to drop the paper, skip the review, and just get directly online to book a ticket. It helped that it was 1:45 with no interval, which means to me that if it were actually bad or irritating, well, it would all be over quite soon with a chance of somehow salvaging my night (or in this case, my afternoon – the matinee was over in plenty of time to see a show that evening).

The plot of this play is as follows: there is a man not long out of prison, who has a girlfriend he suspects of infidelity (with the man with the hat). They’re both poor and Puerto Rican, and grew up together in the crappy New York neighborhood the pay is set. Jackie (Ricardo Chavira) is trying to clean up his act and stay out of prison – find a job and stick to the AA program, that kind of thing – while Veronica (Flor de Liz Perez), well, clearly has some substance abuse issues (we watch her snorting lines in the first scene) and might have some questionable ways of funding that hobby. Or maybe she makes her money hairdressing; I couldn’t be sure. And it didn’t help that Boyfriend’s AA counselor Ralph (Alec Newman) was busy advising him (and us) that Girlfriend was an unreliable skank who was a problem in Boyfriend’s life: gosh, yeah, maybe the drugs do cloud your judgment. Whatever her story is, though, Boyfriend is positive that Girlfriend has not been faithful (his evidence seems good), and he’s furious, and if he can’t get his temper under control, it’s back behind bars for him.

While this play is ultimately a bit slim (it doesn’t really have enough to justify an interval, so it’s well chosen to run it straight through), there’s no avoiding the powerful reality of the characters that populate it. Jackie’s dilemma hurts. We can feel the power of his affection, but also the tides of the other emotions sweeping through him – the conflict between keeping control and living a life in which he can have respect for himself. I was convinced that not going for violence was going to permanently break him, yet I was invested in him enough that I also desperately wanted him to be able to avoid breaking his terms of probation. Then there was his girlfriend: fiery-hot tempered, clearly impulsive, sexy as hell, and so obviously madly in love with him that seeing them split up was killing me. Jackie’s character was more clearly drawn for us by the presence of his extremely odd cousin, Julio (Yul Vasquez), whose description of their life together as children was obviously necessary backstory but also created the crucial element that made us, the audience, root for Jackie so hard, Julio could have just been throwing pom poms into the audience. The collective of the three of them smashed apart the shallow caricatures of Italian immigrants peopling Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge: in some ways, these people were fighting many of the same problems (money/loyalty/fidelity) but with a richness that made them so much more than wax figurines populating a morality tale.

The morality issues are pretty strong in this play, and it’s a very modern morality that washes over the underpinning questions of Veronica’s reliability: it’s the morality of AA, telling people to take it one day at a time, telling them to turn to God for support, telling them to let things go …. and maybe telling them that, since they need to forgive themselves and learn how to feel good about themselves, that maybe they don’t have to try to act to make a better future for themselves or others. It’s a little hard to describe but simultaneously very new-agey and completely Machiavellian. I was shocked at how much ugliness Stephen Adly Gurgis managed to find in his few characters, all seeking to lead their lives according to precepts that they firmly believed in; and ultimately, the only one I felt I could stand up for was the guy society saw fit to put in jail. That gave me more to wonder about at the end of the play than almost anything else. It was, really, a good show that well rewarded the 100 minutes I invested in it.

(This review is for a performance that took place June 25th, 2015. It runs through August 20th.)

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