Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play, The Motherf**ker with the Hat, performing through June 22 at Cygnet Theatre, is about the impossibility of recovery. No, really. It’s also about an opportunity for terrific ensemble acting.
The impossibility of recovery is actually firmly anchored in the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous, where Jackie (Steven Lone), a relative newcomer who is struggling with staying sober, has met Ralph D (Laurence Brown) and asked the 15-year sober Ralph to serve as his sponsor (someone who serves as a guide toward recovery). Ralph knows that AA works well when it works, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Ralph also knows that being and staying sober is only the first step in the recovery process and that recovery is never complete. AA members never achieve perfection as people, a precept that Mr. Guirgis’ play ably demonstrates.
Jackie is just out of prison, and he’s looking to start up again with Veronica (Sandra Ruiz). There are two major red flags to this relationship, however. One is that Jackie has confused a mostly sexual relationship with romance. The other is that Veronica is an addict and is still using.
The play’s action is kicked off when Jackie visits Veronica and discovers another man’s hat in her bedroom. Jackie becomes obsessed with finding the man to whom the hat belonged, not only alienating Veronica in the process but starting himself down an emotional path that promises to spill over the top and lead to breaking Jackie’s tentative sobriety.
Ralph attempts to keep Jackie on track, but he knows that he can’t will Jackie to stay sober. Ralph also has his share of relationship problems with his wife, Victoria (Whitney Brianna Thomas), even though his own sobriety doesn’t seem to be in question.
Jackie’s obsession leads him to his gay cousin, Julio (Esteban Andres Cruz). Julio’s had his own brush with 12-Step recovery, and while he’s seen his own obsession quiet to the point where he no longer attends meetings he’s still got an addict’s co-dependent personality. Jackie needs Julio, but Julio also needs Jackie, much to the distaste of both.
If all of this description doesn’t sound like a recipe for laughs, it isn’t. Still, Mr. Guirgis manages to find quite a bit of humor in these struggles.
What holds the audience in thrall is a script that, combined with excellent ensemble acting, pits truth vs. bullshit and causes truth to win out just enough of the time. Like most of us, these characters have trouble recognizing their own weaknesses but they see weaknesses in the other characters plainly.
The architect of this production’s considerable effectiveness is director Rob Lutfy. As a fellow alum of the North Carolina School of the Arts, Cygnet artistic director Sean Murray made an inspired choice in recruiting the DC-based Lutfy for this production. In turn, Mr. Lutfy took a chance on some casting choices (primarily Ms. Thomas and Mr. Cruz, who are recent transplants to the area, and Ms. Ruiz, a relative newcomer) that all paid off nicely.
But, the choices that paid off most were casting Mr. Brown as Ralph and Mr. Lone as Jackie. Mr. Brown doesn’t work in San Diego theatre that often, but when he does you can always expect (and get) a performance that digs into his character’s soul. Mr. Lone works quite a bit locally, and his performances just keep getting better and better. I’d call this one his best work to date. [php snippet=1]Staging what’s essentially a proscenium show on Cygnet’s thrust did present some technical difficulties, most of which were solved rather nicely. Andrew Hull’s set deftly combines the grit of some Manhattan neighborhoods with the small touches that the characters use to make their lives more livable. R. Craig Wolf’s lighting sets the appropriate mood and focuses the action where it belongs. Matt Lescault-Wood’s sound design features music choices that comment nicely on the action. Only Angelica Ynfante’s property design suffers, mainly because there are many scene shifts and a fair number of props need to be carried in and out for each scene. Especially early on, Mr. Lutfy tries to make lemonade out of these lemons, staging the scene shifts in a jaunty manner, but as the play progresses he’s stuck with just getting the job done as quickly as possible.
As you might expect, not everything works out the way these characters would have wanted. But, if 12-Step recovery is premised in sharing experience, strength, and hope, The Motherf**cker with the Hat provides a fair measure of each.