By George Basler
With a title like The Motherf**ker with the Hat, audiences can probably guess they’re in for a brash, in-your-face evening.
And the play, now being given an excellent production by Binghamton University’s Theater Department, is certainly that. But mixed in with the profanity and raw subject matter is a compelling story of flawed people stumbling through life as they cope with their inner demons.
Performed in the intimate space of Studio A in the Fine Arts Building, the BU production is shockingly funny at some points and over the top at others. OK, I’ll admit the rawness of the language sometimes made me wince.
Still, the play has a tenderness and emotional resonance, and you end up caring about the characters as they struggle in a purgatory of their own making.
The play, written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, had a recent Broadway run and has remained popular with college theater departments.
The BU production, directed by Carol Hanscom, strikes the appropriate balance between humor and emotional intensity. The pacing is brisk. While there are numerous blackouts as furniture is moved, the action never lags. Credit goes to Hanscom and a stage crew that works with almost military-like precision.
The play’s main character is Jackie, fresh out of prison for a drug offense and in Alcoholics Anonymous, who is struggling to maintain a relationship with Veronica, his long-time love, who has her own substance abuse problems. When Jackie spies a hat in the apartment the two share, he becomes convinced that Veronica is cheating on him. The action proceeds from there.
Also in the play are Ralph, Jackie’s AA sponsor, who is a complex mixture of friendliness and deviousness; Victoria, Ralph’s put-upon wife, and Julio, Jackie’s effeminate cousin, who supplies much of the play’s comedy.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat provides meaty roles for actors, and the young BU cast is unanimously up to the task.
Trey Santiago does a fine job playing Jackie’s outer toughness and bluster while unveiling the character’s inner pain and vulnerability. Liz Caribel Sierra is equally good in showing Veronica’s hard-as-nails exterior that goes along with her love for Jackie. She has the intensity to put the character across.
In the end Santiago and Sierra make their characters heartbreaking.
Eric Berger has the plumb role of Ralph and does a first-rate job. While the character has charisma to spare, Berger also effectively plays Ralph’s emotional hollowness and cynicism, which is revealed as the play progresses. His cards-on-the-table confrontation with Jackie near the play’s end is played superbly.
At first, RJ Zayas seems to be playing a stock comic character as Julio. No question the character provides some light moments, but Zayas’ portrayal peels back layers to show Julio’s strength of character, which has enabled him to survive emotionally. His speech toward the end of play, when he reveals why he has such deep caring for Jackie, is very moving.
Precious Johnson has the tough job of playing Victoria. The character, for me, is the most problematic in the play. An attractive and brainy woman, Victoria has chucked a promising career to marry Ralph, who cheats on her. Johnson brings real emotional power to a key scene in the play when she reveals the betrayal to Jackie. But the character then stays with Ralph, and Guirgis, the playwright, provides no rationale for this jarring note.
The characters in The Motherf**ker with the Hat may be flawed, but they are people who are complicated and believable. That makes for a very interesting evening. The Motherf**ker with the Hat may not be to everybody’s taste, but one thing is for sure: You won’t be bored.
Be forewarned: Studio A has limited seating, and all the tickets are general admission. If you go, I’d recommend getting there a half hour before the start to get the seat you want. The night I went was close to a sellout.
IF YOU GO: The Motherf**ker with the Hat will be performed two final times, at 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 22 and 23) at Studio A in Binghamton University’s Fine Arts Building. General admission tickets are $18 ($16 for faculty/staff and seniors; $8 for students). Call 777-ARTS (2787) or visit theatre.binghamton.edu.