San Diego, CA--- Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Broadway rave (2011)“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” has finally made it to San Diego’s Cygnet Theatre in Old Town through June 22nd. If you miss it, you will have missed out on something important. It just happens to be one of the most stimulating, true to life and insightful, thought provoking and comi/tragic plays all rolled into one. You really don’t want to do that!
Guirgis’ “Little Flower Of East Orange” at ION Theatre recently and years before that other theatre's in and about San Diego mounted “Jesus Hopped The A Train” and before that “Our Lady of 121st Street”. Those plays also brought media attention to this insightful playwright who seems to have his fingers on the pulse of the neglected underbelly of society.
Guirgis infuses life into his characters and each of the actors on Cygnet’s stage reveals the fragilities and limitations placed on them along with the struggles they encounter as they work out the complexities of their addictions, their relationships, for good or bad, and the reasons they stay in them… or not. How about a 12 Step Program?
It all starts when Jackie (Steven Lone) Veronica’s (Sandra Ruiz) squeeze (they have been together since 8th grade) returns to their apartment after having finally been released from prison for dealing drugs. He showers her with small gifts like candy bars, a lottery ticket and tons (if she’ll let him) of lovin’. He’s ready for sex, she ready for a shower.
While she’s in the shower, he prances on the bed like a school boy waiting for a reward after passing a test, when all of a sudden he notices a man’s hat on the coffee table with traces of coke underneath it. One thing is for sure and that is it’s not his hat and Jackie is in a twelve-step recovery program. He needs to get the hell out of there and meet with his AA Sponsor, Ralph D. (Laurence Brown) because booze is just around the corner and he knows someone else has been in his bed! (“There was a sanctity to when we used to go there”)
Set on Cygnet Theatre’s up close and personal stage, magician and set designer Andy Hull allows at least three different locations, with the actors acting as proficient furniture movers, housing Veronica’s messy apartment, Ralph D. and Victoria’s digs (Laurence Brown and Whitney Brianna Thomas) and Cousin Julio’s immaculate place (Esterban Andres Cruz).
Graffiti covers the sliding and folding panels that become back walls, a bed slides in and out and little cubbies hold an array of knickknacks that give each living space its charm or lack thereof. R. Craig Wolfe’s lighting design leaves a different and distinct energy on each specific location.
Jackie, Ralph Julio and Veronica have grown up on the mean streets of New York (think Spanish Harlem) and all four will, in almost equal parts, love, hate, embrace, reject and ultimately try to destroy or even kill each other.
Rob Lufty is making his directorial debut in this 100 minute long intermission less drama. No pun intended, but hat's off to his great start in San Diego.
‘Hat’ plays out in about seven or eight scenes where we find Victoria and Ralph looking like your typical couple; he sipping a strawberry –colored fruit drink she’s in another room as the action shifts to their place in Hells Kitchen, after Jackie leaves Veronica’s. Ralph D has to calm Jackie down by offering to pray with him. Jackie wants a gun. Ralph talks about the program. Victoria wants them all outside so she can watch her favorite TV show. She’s heard it all before.
Segue to Washington Heights and Cousin Julio (he’s got his own set of dependencies) whose an exercise nut, loyal to a fault, (he lets Jackie stay there after Veronica throws him out) treasures his cooking skills and listens in awe as Jackie rampages about Julio’s neighbor who he thinks was the one that left the ‘hat’ at Veronica’s. He didn’t actually shoot the neighbor, just his hat. And OH, by the way, will he (Julio) hide the gun until he (Jackie) can return it to its rightful owner? And so it goes.
Lone’s Jackie is both tough and soft yet still a firebrand. He really believes he can have it all, his house, job, clean urine sample and Veronica. While his temper needs tempering, hers fuels the fire. Each of them will learn the hard way that life deals its blows no matter which way they look and the closer each of them comes to their ideal, the further away it becomes. Their relationship is like fire and water. Congrats to Lone for giving us another A+ performance after his all-star performance in “Chad Deity” last year at Ion Theater.
Victoria has her mark out for Jackie, just because she can and will take revenge on Ralph for his indiscretions. She proves that when she deals Jackie the final blow after their attempted lovemaking amounts to nothing, it isn’t going to be pretty. And as for Ralph D, well beware of Greeks bearing gifts and quoting the Bible. Brown is so convincing as Jackie’s sponsor that when the table’s turn, this reviewer almost let out an “Oh my God”.
Brown was last seen on Cygnet stage in “The Piano Lesson” and “Gem of the Ocean” both plays by August Wilson. Though few and far between, Brown is always a welcome face on any San Diego stage although in ‘Hat” some got to see a bit more than his face. BTW, this is an X rated show in case you had not already guessed.
Sandre Ruiz’ Veronica is street smart, blasé to a fault and never sees herself as the problem or the cause of Jackie’s madness and temper tantrums. While she manages to be at the center of all of Jackie’s problems, she doesn't seem to have the same intensity as the others leaving her performance a bit on the weak, less convincing side. A little more sizzle and finesse would be a big improvement.
Thomas’ Victoria is yet another victim of her own bad decision-making. On her way to making a six-figured salary with all the trimmings, good looks, and sexy figure and in good shape, she met and fell for Ralph D. She hasn’t recovered from that fall yet so she is willing to drag anyone who will listen down with her. Her target, of course, is Jackie. She is sexy and feisty and a perfect match for Ralph. This is her Cygnet debut hopefully not her last.
Esteban Andres Cruz is the perfect fit as Julio. He is just what the doctor and Jackie ordered to shed a little light on where they both came from. Julio adds some much needed fun to the mix. His is not just another dose of the sardonic humor surrounding the rest. This one is for real. His performance is laced with bitter truth and perfect comic timing. Job well done.
While I can’t say enough about Guirgis and his commitment to his characters with this, his latest entre I will caution that the play is loaded with ‘F’’ bombs from start to finish. If you are queasy about hearing this language or think it doesn’t exist on the mean streets of New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Chicago or any other area in America, then this is not a play for you.
If you can tolerate a realistic look at the dark, addicted and invisible side of life and the struggle it holds for those scratching and clawing just to get enough air the breathe or a little relief from self inflicted pain you will be thoroughly intrigued with this play and production.
The shock value alone will get your juices in an uproar. It’s been called a ‘serious comedy’ and in the end, as funny as some of the situations may sound and appear, your heart will break.
Once again hats off to Cygnet for staging it, and to the cast for pulling off a much-needed update on Guirgis and his marginalized characters.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through June 22nd
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Production Type: Comedy/Drama
Where: 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town
Ticket Prices: Start at $32.00
Venue: Theatre in Old Town