The Struggles of Addiction and Codependency Highlight Players On the Wall's The Motherf**ker with the Hat.
Note: A version of this review appears in Con Safos Magazine.
As with most his plays, Stephen Adly Guirgis holds no punches in his funny, darkly humorous play, The Motherf**ker with the Hat – in which an ex-convict returns home after two years in prison to discover a hat that’s not his in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend. Centered around fidelity and sobriety, the play follows Jackie on a cathartic journey as life on parole tears him a new one. This initially rich source material provides just the right backdrop for Players on the Wall’s sophomore production. Add in the unique venue, The Lowbrow Palace, and you’d have a recipe for a thoroughly unique evening of theatre.
From the very first scene, the level of dedication from all production members is evident. This is a space that lives and breathes with its artists. Small as it may be, the attention to detail, down to what liquor is placed where, makes for a cluttered, albeit characterized playing space – one that comes to life once the curtain goes up. The first scene perfectly captivates on this mess by providing a frenzied, altogether scattered Veronica (Emily James). Whilst talking to her mother on the phone, Veronica haphazardly attempts to clean the house. Even when she’s finished tidying up, the sense of clutter is still palpable – made only more evident when Jackie (the wonderful Abel Garcia) enters the space. From here, the story takes off as Jackie and Veronica share both a heated moment of intimacy and a scorching moment of mistrust. James and Garcia play off each other very well, establishing an intense relationship through subtext, even when the stakes feel forced. Their rapport is soft and light, whereas their spite is septic. Their relationship feels lived in, even if the sense of danger never really lands during their falling out.
The same can be said with Jackie and his cousin, Julio (Raul Chavez.) Their scenes together are immediately intimate and lived in – giving the audience a sense of a lurid, altogether complex history between the two men – all the more entertaining when undercut with smart comedic timing. Garcia and Chavez are a marvel to watch together. From the size difference (Garcia is over six feet tall, whereas Chavez is only about five feet tall) to the differences in spite and anger – the thrill of watching opposites clash never loses momentum over their three scenes together. In fact, it’s within this relationship that the meat of the play reveals itself. Their scenes uncover senses of addiction and codependency in intimate forms, even when matched with comedy. Jackie’s constant need for his cousins help, Julio’s addiction to Jackie, even though Jackie is toxic for his mental health… There’s never a doubt that these two care for each other, even when they’re both saying they don’t.
The same sense of intimacy is found somewhat lacking in the relationship between Jackie and his sponsor, Ralph (Vincent Rando). Whether or not this was a deliberate choice, the moments between Jackie and Ralph don’t have the same breathlessness as other moments of the play do. This is not to say that Garcia and Rando aren’t doing good work – far from it. However, the attention to the relationship feels underachieved, making the men’s overall conflict feel forced and strained. This proves especially true in their final scene together, in which everything comes undone. However, this is one of the only missteps the play takes – as several other, smaller relationships echo almost as loudly as that of Julio and Jackie. A perfect example of this is the brief, but brazenly raw scene between Jackie and Victoria (Diana Lopez). While the initial introduction of Victoria a little underwhelming and artificial, her interaction with Jackie in their next scene together breaks the audience’s heart. Lopez is daring in her approach, while Garcia’s inner conflict translate to physical movement beautifully. There is pain and desperation.
This altogether characterizes The Motherf**ker with the Hat’s success – finding heartbreak and love within darkly funny moments. Act 2 plays far stronger than Act 1 because all actors are allowed some breathing room. The humor is less essential – allowing greater focus on the play’s examination on pain. Director Robert Robles has a great sense of Jackie’s struggles – making the world around him feel cage-like – staging all the character’s changes on stage. Jackie never catches a break with Robles blocking. This suffocating attention to detail also highlights some missed opportunities in developing power imbalances. For Jackie, the sense of absolute powerlessness feels apparent throughout the entire production – however Ralph never really feels all that relaxed. Most of this stems from two scenes veering a bit closer to “mood” than reality – namely the confrontation scenes between Ralph and Veronica and Ralph and Jackie. Both scenes play a bit more stylized than raw, which is noticeable. The same can be said of a few directing choices that end up being more distracting than supportive – the chief one being the utilization of dialects – which aren’t always consistent and feel a bit too forced, even when the actors are doing them impeccably.
These few qualms nevertheless don’t soil the entire experience, as much of the play is still very engaging. Once again, the work of Garcia is particularly breathtaking. The levels of nuance found in his quieter, vulnerable moments scream louder than his moments of rage – which scream loud enough in their own right. Chavez is an immediate audience kick-starter – pulling the most laughs of the night. James and Lopez both find a subtle fire in their respective parts. And Rando lands some solid punches when using his words as a weapon. This, coupled by some very wise utilization of space and lighting, make for one very unique experience. If the play were allowed more time, the missteps would undoubtedly resolve themselves. Altogether, the production lands on its feet and notes a confident second show for Players on the Wall, even when it stumbles along the way.