Theater

Vulgar Dialogue and Emotional Thrills Spark Teatro Bravo's The Motherfucker with the Hat

As an entertainment, Teatro Bravo's production of The Motherfucker with the Hat moves snappily through 90 intermission-free minutes, punctuated with vulgar one-liners and asides that keep the audience amused and diverted from this question: We talk, but does anyone actually say anything?

Stephen Adly Guirgis' play is all about language — particularly about how we, in the early 21st century, have learned to talk around things rather than actually deal with them. As spoken by the five Manhattanites we meet here, conversation is equal parts insult, self-help jargon, and television catchphrase. If these people are angry and confused, it's not just because they've living marginal lives; it's because they live without an accurate or honest language. They're asked to live by 12-step tenets they neither understand nor believe in, and it's pissing them off.

The play opens on Jackie, an ex-con and former drug dealer who's recently been released from prison. He's visiting his girlfriend, Veronica, when he spots a man's hat on a table in her apartment and accuses her of sleeping with the downstairs neighbor, who's always wearing derbies. He heads to his 12-step sponsor, Ralph, to confess that he's borrowed a gun and plans to shoot the mofo with the hat. Ralph persuades Jackie to leave the hat with Jackie's cousin, Julio, a health fitness nut who idolizes Jackie. Various contretemps and betrayals ensue, through which the actors finesse a wild, theatrical landscape, bellowing shocking profanities that begin to sound, after awhile, like the warmest intimacies.

The cast is consistent and strong. Phillip Herrington plays Jackie as a man on a collision course with his own future, sprinting toward his own destruction and cursing that inevitability. We see him in encounters with his longtime girlfriend, a family member, an authority figure — always angry, always bitter — and while Herrington holds Jackie in the same swaggering, remorse-filled place, he also allows us to hear his pain in all the bellowing and fatigue.

As Julio, Alberto Ley enhances the story's sense of perpetual movement with an especially appealing performance that's slower than those of his castmates — he offers a suave and genial New Age man by way of a bordertown barrio. Even threatening another man with violence, he exhibits the gentle dignity, charisma, and wry humor of the hero that this story doesn't really have.

Director Anthony Runfola wisely emphasizes Guirgis' vulgar dialogue, yet never lets the crudeness spoil the emotional thrills offered by his actors. Whenever the piece gets back to exploring how we've learned to talk in sound bites without listening, it's a riveting motherfucker of a play.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela