|Royce Johnson, Ben Cole and Varín Ayala. Photo by Lanny Nagler|
By Lauren Yarger
Stephen Adly Guiris' play, The Motherf**ker with the Hat, making its regional premiere at TheaterWorks in Hartford, is a marketing nightmare. How do you get the word out, when the title isn't something you can print or say on TV or radio? And how do you convince audiences that 90 minutes of ear-blistering dialogue is worth sitting through?
Well, in New York, where the play was nominated for a best-play Tony last season, it helped that comedian Chris Rock was making his Broadway debut in the role of Ralph. Once audiences were in the door, they couldn't help but notice the better-than-average play as well as superb performances by Bobby Cannavale, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Yul Vázquez, all of whom received Tony nominations. Director Anna D. Shapiro was nominated as well.
Here in Hartford, it's worth the trip for the excellent, humorous play and a stellar performance turned in by Royce Johnson as Ralph. We get to see a little bit more of the TheaterWorks veteran (God of Carnage, Broke-ology) than we did of Rock in the role -- Director Tazewell Thompson has added a full nudity scene -- but we also get to see more of Ralph's character and a superior performance.
Ben Cole plays Jackie (the Cannavale role), recently paroled, who finds a job and looks forward to a 12-Step guided fresh start with his love, Puerto Rican spitfire Veronica (a terribly miscast Clea Alsip. She doesn't look or sound Puerto Rican, and doesn't pull off the spitfire part either). There's just one problem: Jackie discovers a hat left behind in the drab apartment (Donald Eastman, design) and accuses Veronica of being unfaithful with the hat-wearing motherf**ker who lives downstairs.
Fighting the urge to take a drink, and/or to shoot the motherf**ker, Jackie seeks guidance from his AA sponsor, Ralph, who doesn't approve of his being back with Veronica any way because she is a user. Ralph perhaps is not the greatest at giving relationship advice, however, as his wife, Victoria (Vanessa Wasche, apparently attempting some indiscernible accent) is preparing to leave him. Calmed down by his good friend, Jackie takes the gun to his cousin Julio (Varin Ayala) for safekeeping.
Before long, we discover that Ralph has been as rotten and uncaring a friend to Jackie as Jackie has been to the effeminate, body-building Julio over the years. Questions of love and loyalty arise on all fronts amidst a bunch of profanity and some very hip and biting humor. When all is said and done, Jackie, who doesn't appear to be the brightest bulb in the pack, might just see the light more than all of them. And there's just something to be said for a guy who can't help but love the woman he describes as a ball-crushing Godzilla.
Besides the odd casting of Veronica, Thompson also fails to rein in Ayala, whose portrayal is too over-the-top dramatically. When he goes "Van Dam" later in the play, some of the humor of that transformation is lost because he already has been supercharged. Yelling also is the technique of choice by most of the actors. Considering that our ears already are being blistered by the language, a more subtle approach to delivering the dialogue works better. Johnson, shines, though, and is natural in the skin of his character, revealing multi levels of sleaze as well as comedic ability as the play continues.
Special kudos go to the actors and crew who change props and furniture on the tiny stage with lightning speed between scenes.
The theater posts the following advisories: Full adult nudity; adult language; adult content; no one under the age of 16 will be admitted; no late seating. The Motherf**ker with the Hat runs through Dec. 4 at TheaterWorks, City on Pearl, 233 Pearl St., Hartford. Performances are
Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Weekend Matinees at 2:30 pm. For information/seats call 860-527-7838; visit www.theaterworkshartford.org.