A roomful of foulmouth, a hatful of funny as hell

Artists Rep's 'The Motherfucker with the Hat' blows the lid off decorum and lights up the stage

OK, let’s just get that title out of the way right off the bat: The Motherfucker with the Hat.

 Take a deep breath, gird your damn loins, say The Word three more times.

Motherfucker!

 Motherfucker!

 Motherfucker!

 There, now. Did the sky fall in? Did you just put a down payment on a one-way train trip to the Hubs of Hell? Feel like washing your mouth out with soap? Or is this just linguistic business as usual?

From left: Del Campo, San Nicolas, Mack. Photo: Owen Carey

From left: Del Campo, San Nicolas, Mack. Photo: Owen Carey

Truth is, The Word’s just the beginning in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2011 dramatic comedy, which is a roomful of foulmouth and a hatful of funny as hell. It rains obscenities like an avalanche of Richard Pryor, like a World Wrestling Federation smackdown, like a construction crew on lunch break, like an editorial meeting at the Dictionary of Urban Slang. Mr. Angle and Mr. Saxon would feel right at home in the play’s coarse company, cutting straight to the chase while the Norman invaders were obsessing over how to brew a proper cup of tea.

And the greater, maybe more surprising truth is that, despite its not-so-casual scatological streak (surely the play’s title is a bigger draw for potential audiences than a turn-off) MoFo is an old-fashioned kind of play – a literary play, one that succeeds not just on the basis of its theme or the quality of its performances but also because of its tightly written, carefully constructed language. Its dialogue is a poetry of the streets, as precise and besotted with sound as the linguistic inventions of an Elizabethan comedy. It’s like music: a symphony for concrete pavement and tenement floorboards and rooftop pigeons and broken dreams. It takes a lot of discipline to create something so free and loose.

Guirgis’s play, which is getting a slam-bang, balls-out, ferociously funny performance at Artists Repertory Theatre under Kevin Jones’s daredevil hairpin-curve direction, is an hour-and-a-half funride with a few fearsome drops by the side of the road. In its own weird way it’s a love story, or a story about the misapprehensions of love. In the end, everyone’s desperate. Everyone’s alone. Just when things seem like they might veer into Moonstruck territory, Guirgis grits his teeth and keeps the wheel pointed straight ahead.

DeLaCruz and San Nicolas. Photo: Owen Carey

DeLaCruz and San Nicolas. Photo: Owen Carey

The setup’s all lowdown and darkly comic. Jackie (John San Nicolas), a Puerto Rican guy who’s recently out of prison and is carefully 12-stepping his way back to success, bursts in on his girlfriend, Veronica (Diana DeLaCruz) with a handful of flowers, a mouthful of promise, and a trouserful of let’s celebrate right now: He’s just landed a job, and he’s ready to talk about moving their relationship to the next level. Then he spies the hat on the table. It’s not his. The Green-eyed Monster moves in bigtime. Somebody, Jackie’s convinced, has been mussing his sheets while he’s been away. And Jackie’s not about to take that lying down.

Guirgis drives us from there onto a high-speed obstacle course of red herrings, mistaken identities, betrayals and near-betrayals, anger, temptation, revelations, addictions emotional and substantial, and, let’s face it, a few very very bad decisions. It’s a hair-trigger script, fast and furious (big props to dialect coach Mary McDonald-Lewis), and although comedy’s always at the forefront, the tug of tragedy is lurking, ready to pounce. Sadness and hopelessness are just around the corner while we’re laughing, in the furtive little drug deals and the arguments that go too dangerously far. Recognizing that, I think, is the key that keeps MoFo from being just a high-gloss situation-comedy cartoon.

But as clever and sharp and expertly shaded as the writing is, it’s the performances that catapult this show into the top tier of the current Portland season. This is a fine-tuned five-cylinder engine, running at max speed and max efficiency, and for theater lovers, it’s a joy to watch it zoom down the road. San Nicolas, as the wounded warrior, underscores his muscular menace with a streak of sweet bewilderment that’s in constant battle with his quick temper: he’s a classic flawed hero, and oddly endearing even when he’s waving around a gun or taking a wild swing at one of his friends. DeLaCruz’s Veronica is a sharp-tongued firecracker with a few bad habits, a likable striver who keeps sabotaging herself: like Jackie, she can’t quite seem to allow herself to be happy. Victor Mack, as Jackie’s philandering and duplicitous 12-step sponsor, gives yet another knockout, slyly subversive performance. Val Landrum, as his frustrated and emotionally hungry wife, is equal parts sadness and raw comedy. And Gilberto Martin del Campo, as Jackie’s fastidious cousin Julio, is downright righteous with precise humor: Julio’s the surprise of the lot, the overlooked kid who’s got it together better than anyone else. If this cast doesn’t nail down a best-ensemble nomination come awards time, something’s rotten in the state of Denmark.

All of this takes place in Artists Rep’s upstairs theater, a little hothouse space with a capacity of about 160, and the closeness amps everything up. Design matches the acting and script: terrific character-revealing costumes by Bobby Brewer-Wallin, reliably effective lighting by Peter West, a cleverly mobile set with graffiti backdrop by Tal Sanders, a little melodrama from composer and sound designer Sharath Patel. You can hang your hat on that. If the hat’s really yours.

*

The Motherfucker with the Hat continues at Artists Rep through March 30. Ticket and schedule information are here.

Mack and Landrum. Photo: Owen Carey

Mack and Landrum. Photo: Owen Carey

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