by Richard Dodds
It's a curious mental trick when we can see "motherf**ker" in print as sufficiently redacted for public consumption even as our minds quickly fill in the missing letters. In other words, within us is both awareness of the vulgarity and the floating concessions needed to accommodate it. It's an analogy that playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis probably could not have anticipated when he titled his play The Motherfucker with the Hat – most commonly rendered with the "**" substitutions – but it turns out to be serendipitously apt for this examination of ethics and the compromises needed to keep humanity afloat.
Guirgis already had a substantial theatrical reputation when Hat gave him his Broadway debut in 2011, which gained event status as comedian Chris Rock also made his first Main Stem appearance. But the play is an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle, and if anything, the balance tips away from the role that Rock played toward a pair of lovers who begin to feel like a hellacious version of The Honeymooners.
At San Francisco Playhouse, which is presenting the West Coast premiere of Hat, Gabriel Marin and Isabelle Ortega quickly pull us into their tumultuous world, in which words of passionate endearment and shocking invective are easily interchangeable. Although in love since their teens, their current circumstances are rooted in dysfunction. Jackie is on parole and in AA, while Veronica blithely snorts cocaine with no deference to her partner's struggle to stay sober.
But the mood at first is bright as Jackie arrives home with news of his first post-prison job, as maneuvers toward a celebratory shag suddenly turn accusatory when Jackie notices an unfamiliar hat in the room. In the turn-on-a-dime world that Guirgis has created, Veronica denies infidelity by alternately suggesting they calmly head out to their "sacred place," a pie shop, and angrily offering to fuck Jackie's late mother with a dildo. Marin and Ortega play this pivotal opening scene with a stunning ferocity, which ends with Jackie determined to take revenge on whoever is the motherfucker with the hat.
We then enter the seemingly peaceable kingdom of Ralph, Jackie's AA sponsor, where a blender churns out health drinks and Ralph churns out positive-thinking homilies with graceful authority. But this 12-step haven is actually on a rocky foundation, as first indicated by Ralph's wife, who responds to his gentle requests with hostility before far deeper cracks are revealed. Carl Lumbly, a familiar face from television and movies, plays Ralph (the Chris Rock role) with an unwaveringly sturdy dignity that makes the character's transgressions, and his easy self-absolutions, all the more unsettling. You begin to see why his wife, played with an anger both amusing and sad by Margo Hall, has found the tarnish on her Prince Charming.
There is considerable humor inherent in Guirgis' colloquially edged dialogue, though more specific comic relief is provided by Jackie's cousin Julio, obviously gay (if not completely out), who imagines himself a clone of Jean-Claude Van Damme. Rudy Guerrero is a welcome recurring presence as Julio, which the production needs as its repetitious patterns drain some of the full-tilt energies before its 100 minutes are up.
Despite this, you have to admire the work of director Bill English (who also designed the multi-roomed set) for his ability to so effectively cultivate the many moods and tones that are swift to change. These are probably not your lives on view, but it's hard not so see where close-to-home truths are illuminated. As Jackie says, "This song is debilitated to you."
The Motherfucker with the Hat will run at San Francisco Playhouse through March 16. Tickets are $30-$70. Call 677-9596 or go to www.sfplayhouse.org.