Jackie (Gabriel Marin, far left) and Cousin Julio (Rudy Guerrero, left) visit sponsor Ralph D. (Carl Lumbly, right) and his wife Victoria (Margo Hall, center) to discuss suspected misdeeds in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat. Below: Marin’s Jackie fends off angry girlfriend Veronica, played by Isabelle Ortega. Photos by Jessica Palopoli
[warning: this review does not hide or disguise the word “motherfucker” in the title of the play at hand]
The comedy, the intensity and all that rough language keeps things skittering right along in the San Francisco Playhouse production of The Motherfucker with the Hat by Stephen Adly Guirgis. The play is this rush of plot and character and language, then the sadness and despair lands. It takes Lionel Richie and the Commodores to underscore it, but man oh man is it there.
In so many ways, Gurigis’ Hat is about growing up, about taking yourself and the world you live in seriously enough to find purpose and pursue it with as much discipline as you can muster. The grown-ups in the play, let it be said, don’t do such a good job on the discipline part, although most of them have (or find) some degree of purpose.
This is the fourth time the Playhouse has tacked a Guirgis play, and it’s easy to see the attraction to the hefty, funny, complicated worlds that Guirgis creates. Compared to previous shows such as Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped the A Train, The Motherfucker isn’t quite as gritty or as dark, but it’s still a substantial work about lives (and lies) in transition.
The main character, Jackie (Gabriel Marin) is fresh out of a 24-month stint in prison for getting caught dealing drugs out of the apartment he shares with his on-and-off girlfriend since the eighth grade, Veronica (Isabelle Ortega). When we meet Jackie, he’s as excited as a puppy getting adopted. He has his sobriety, he has his love and he has a new job. Life is good for Jackie…until it isn’t, and all those things he thought he had require re-evaluation.
Jackie turns to his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Ralph D. (Carl Lumbly) for solace and guidance, and though the older man appears to be the soul of compassion and grounded intelligence, he’s not quite what he seems. Curiously, though we learn many unsavory things about Ralph and he’s a liar, he really does turn out to be a pretty good sponsor. He’s got a lot of life experience, which results in a fair amount of common sense (if not outright morality). When he says he loves his cranky wife, Victoria (Margo Hall), we believe him, in spite of evidence to the contrary. And when we think Victoria might just be unlovable, we discover a smart, passionate woman with a unique perspective on the truth.
Guirgis is a writer capable of surprising his audience, and that’s a welcome trait here. Probably the most delightful character in the play is Cousin Julio (Rudy Guerrero), who, like Victoria, is a truth teller. But flamboyant Julio has flair and charm and, surprisingly, a wife. He’s a muscle man who likes to cook empanadas on his balcony grill, and when he channels his inner Van Damme, the result is funny but also impressive. Maybe one day Guirgis will write a play all about Cousin Julio.
Director Bill English made a smart choice in set designers by hiring himself to create two New York apartments, one grungy, one pristine, set against a backdrop of brownstones and Cousin Julio’s plant-laden balcony high above it all. Now that the Playhouse is settled into its fantastic new space, the sky is clearly the limit in terms of set design.
English gets some superb performances from his cast, most notably from Lumbly as an AA warrior with a unique perspective on life and love, Hall as a knowing, frustrated wife and Guerrero as the unflappable Cousin Julio. Marin and Ortega also have stellar moments, but as the combustible couple at the center of the story, the one struggling with addiction and adultery, there’s something missing. They both create endearing characters, even at their most obnoxious, duplicitous and self-deluding, but they don’t seem to belong together – and the play seems to want us to think they do.
The play boasts some satisfying laughs and an engaging, “what could possibly happen next” sense of storytelling. But this is a serious piece, though it’s less rooted in the head than it is in the heart. Being a grown-up, even one who makes the right choices and still takes advantage of people, is posited as a better alternative to the freefall of addiction and perpetually indulgent, childish behavior. It’s’ not a terribly hopeful message, but it’s one that’s hard to argue.
I talked to playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the interview here.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat continues through March 16 at the San Francisco Playhouse. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.