Lauren Yee’s ‘A Man, His Wife, and His Hat’ is bold and funny, but occasionally flawed

Melissa Blackall - Sasha Olinick stars in “A Man, A Wife, and His Hat” at Fairfax’s Hub Theatre.

The Cheetos-eating Golem is not the quirkiest character in “A Man, His Wife, and His Hat,” the audaciously kooky play by Lauren Yee: That honor goes to the exuberantly self-satisfied talking Wall, who likes to meddle in everyone’s business. A close runner-up would be Hetchman, the eponymous couch-potato husband, who idealizes a long-worn feathered fedora the way Dante idealized Beatrice.

Yes, there’s zaniness to spare in this bold, funny, occasionally flawed fable, the latest in a series of new and offbeat works to receive a production from Fairfax’s adventurous Hub Theatre. Fortunately, up-and-coming playwright Yee is interested in more than quirkiness. Her play’s surreal plot twists and idiosyncratic tone — part once-upon-a-time raptness, part smart-alecky vernacular — serve to advance an unabashedly heartfelt message about the value of love and human relationships.

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The message and the impish humor resound with a confident ring in the Hub production, which is directed by Shirley Serotsky. Scenic designer Leigh-Ann Friedel and props designer Suzanne Maloney give us an early heads-up on the play’s splicing of magical parable and domestic comedy: On the upper tier of a two-level set, looking like a locale in a Jorge Luis Borges tale, book pages line the wall of a gray-and-white study. On the lower level, the scene is earthier: A grubby armchair, mounted with a cup holder containing a peanut can, stands in front of a boxy TV.

The armchair is where you will usually find Hetchman (Sasha Olinick), a lazy, none-too-hygienic retired hat maker whose only passion in life is for his favorite hat. When he dons that headgear, he hears enchanted music (we, too, hear the klezmer-flavored melody, composed by Eric Shimelonis), and his face lights up with crinkly-eyed elation.

Glued as he is to History Channel reruns, Hetchman doesn’t have much attention to spare for his hardworking wife (the excellent Kerri Rambow) — not much, that is, until she and his hat disappear. Elsewhere, a soon-to-be-married young woman named Voice (Kristen Garaffo) is reading Hetchman’s story and talking to the bossy Wall (voiced by Helen Pafumi). Gradually, connections between the two narratives reveal themselves in loopy and ultimately poignant fashion.

Shoveling peanuts into his mouth and barking crankily at anyone who comes near, Olinick seems to revel in Hetchman’s self-indulgent slothfulness. Rambow gets to express a wider range of emotion, sometimes looking lonely and tearful but also displaying hints of fury, as when she viciously pokes Hetchman’s hat. Maboud Ebrahimzadeh aces the role of Hetchman’s kindly, peculiar neighbor; and Daniel Corey is endearing as Voice’s unappreciated fiance, who finds himself subject to a frightening magical force.

The Golem supplies some of the show’s most riveting moments, thanks to the beast’s wondrous-yet-nightmarish look (costume designer Kelsey Hunt devised the roiling mass of multicolored textiles) and the now-menacing, now-adorable (think Cookie Monster) behavior, channeled by actor Chris Stinson. (Nathaniel J. Mendez is the show’s movement consultant.)

Admittedly, the artful performances and ingenious design can’t disguise the fact that Yee milks some of her conceits just a little too long and that her paean to love sometimes feels too pat. And the broken English in which several characters speak — a style of diction that the play doesn’t fully justify, given that the setting is a magical world, not a world of recognizable nationalities and ethnicities — sometimes seems to angle for easy laughter. (The playwright has described the story as “klezmer-inspired.”)

Still, these weaknesses don’t outweigh the oddball wit and daring of “A Man, His Wife, and His Hat,” which has had previous productions in California. It’s a vision to which one can only tip the old chapeau.

Wren is a freelance writer.

A Man, His Wife, and His Hat

by Lauren Yee. Directed by Shirley Serotsky; lighting design, Kenneth Wills; sound, Patrick Calhoun; technical director, Jameson Shroyer; original music by Eric Shimelonis; music performed by Shimelonis and Ben Redwine. About 100 minutes. Through April 28 at the John Swayze Theatre at the New School of Northern Virginia, 9431 Silver King Ct., Fairfax.
Call 800-494-8497 or go to www.thehubtheatre.org.

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