Don’t be deceived by that expletive basking in the title, or by the profanity-riddled sarcasm and bluster that is the characters’ default communication mode: There’s an element of romance in “The Motherf---er with the Hat,” Stephen Adly Guirgis’s shrewdly crafted comedy about recovering addicts in New York City.
In the affecting and seductively funny Studio Theatre production of the play, seamlessly directed by Serge Seiden, you can glimpse the romance at key moments in the expressions and gestures of actor Drew Cortese. Cortese plays the comedy’s central character, Jackie, an ex-con who tends to fly off the handle at the least provocation. Jackie has a manic, trash-talking, fist-pumping manner, and he’s fond of borrowing, and using, a local gangster’s gun. But he loves his longtime girlfriend, Veronica. At one point, when he realizes that he has caused her unwonted distress, he rocks numbly as he sits on a chair, biting his lip, looking stricken and fierce, tearful and defiant, simultaneously.
Admittedly, “The Motherf---er with the Hat” more often features Jackie and his acquaintances squaring off in exuberantly obscene, zinger-strewn tirades — jazzy verbal cadenzas that, while often hilarious, are largely unquotable here. The argumentative vulgarity kicks off in the play’s first scene, when Jackie, recently released from prison and primed for a blissful reunion with Veronica, notices an unfamiliar — and, to him, highly suspicious — hat in the apartment. As confrontations escalate, all the characters reveal their talent for self-deception, long-simmering grievance, and small and large betrayals.
Making Jackie’s life alternately smoother and more difficult is his AA sponsor, Ralph D. (Quentin Maré), a reformed playboy who quotes recovery maxims with glib assurance and prides himself on his yoga- and nutritional-beverage-enhanced lifestyle. Ralph D. may have a few secrets in his past. The same goes for Veronica (Rosal Colón), whose chief charms include her jaded toughness: After telling Jackie she loves him, she can’t keep herself from adding, parenthetically, “And I’ll kick a three-legged kitten down a flight of [expletive] stairs rather than say some [expletive] like ‘I love you.’”
Sporting bushy gray hair and a matching beard, and often padding around in bare feet, Maré’s Ralph D. exudes a sanctimonious sleaziness that is intriguing and dramatically effective. (In the 2011 Broadway production of the play, the role was played by the comedian Chris Rock.) Colón fires off Veronica’s quips with brassy zest — in a droll early monologue, she makes her bed while wisecracking impatiently about Attila the Hun — but she also reveals the vulnerability beneath the character’s aggressive veneer.
Rounding out the excellent cast, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey brings hard-edged poignancy to the role of Victoria, Ralph D.’s bitter, self-pitying wife. And Liche Ariza lets the odd hint of menace enrich his portrait of Julio, Jackie’s breezily confident gym-rat cousin, who is equally comfortable making bodily threats and serving eggs with Spirulina and Asiago cheese.
Guirgis isn’t tossing in that foodie reference just for comic relief: “The Motherf---er with the Hat” is constantly pointing out, and questioning, its characters’ aspirational lives. Ralph D. aspires to stay sober, and out of pain, with the aid of yoga, self-help dictums, and some self-serving philosophizing. Julio aspires to the physique and presence of Jean-Claude Van Damme. If he could keep his impulses under control, Jackie would aspire to settling down with Veronica. Director Seiden emphasizes this theme by letting lush advertising images — alcohol cascading into a glass; a surfer riding a wave — wash over a big-screen television that occasionally appears on designer Debra Booth’s yellow-walled New York apartment set.
But aspirations divorced from values can be dangerous things, Guirgis suggests, in a subtle, moving denouement that in some ways recalls his redemption-minded play “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” In the absence of values, or love, there’s always cynicism. At one point, when a conversation threatens to turn sentimental, Veronica recalls her own childhood excitement about the Easter Bunny. “I got over it,” she observes pointedly.
Wren is a freelance writer.
“The The Motherf---er with the Hatwith the Hat,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Serge Seiden; lighting design, Michael Giannitti; costumes, Ivania Stack; original music and sound design, Eric Shimelonis; fight director, Robb Hunter; dramaturg, Lauren Halvorsen. Two hours. Through March 10 at The Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit www.studiotheatre.org