‘The MoFo With the Hat’: Profane Characters We Secretly Care About

Some things you should know about “The Motherfcker With the Hat,” a scabrous, oddly lyrical, mightily profane play by the gifted newish playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, which is now receiving a riveting, compulsively engaging production at Studio Theatre under the direction of Serge Seiden.

The “mother” word in the title—and in the program and posters and in many publications but not in the Georgetowner (and not the Washington Post either) — is heard many times along with pretty much all the words in the lexicon of four-letter and more words bound to tick off people who are offended at their appearance. I would add that even if you are likely to be offended, come ahead anyway. Attending this production is a brazen chance to feel many acts of recognition (and contrition): to cringe and laugh because you laughed, to see men and women (and, of course, that sneaky apparition, thine own self) at their addictive, profane, wounding, can’t help f—–g up, fit-to-bust into tears or fist pounding, nakedness including one instance of literal male full-frontalness.

When “The MF With the Hat” play hit Broadway in 2011, it got Tony nominations, if not big audiences despite the presence of Chris Rock. Didn’t see it, but I liked this one very much — not because it’s necessarily a great work of art, but because the characters engage you so much. On the surface, you can just sort of gape at and enjoy a guy like Jackie, fresh out of prison, wanting to move on up and in with his girlfriend, Veronica, a powerfully passionate and foul-mouthed girl with a habit, or Ralph D, Jackie’s cool customer AA sponsor, who games the wellness and consciousness raising world like some well-meaning huckster who believes his own jive, or Victoria, Ralph’s embittered, hungry wife — and not to forget Cousin Julio, who’s got Jackie’s back while periodically giving hints of being a very bad dude, even when’s he’s cooking up organic breakfasts in a colorful apron.

Guirgis’s gift is to paint that world fully and to place his characters in their proper environment. These persons are all about some sort of addiction or another: they behave badly all the time, they screw up, they lie, they cheat (on each other), they can’t handle the fact that they’re unfocused, disaster areas bound to pounce on a minefield as if it’s clear sailing. But, boy, are they out there, and because every third word begins with an “f” or “mother” or some variation thereof, they seem almost to be poetic.

Jackie just wants a life: he’s got a job, he’s going to celebrate a birthday, he wants to take his girl to the pie place, and, whoops, he sees a man’s hat lying on the floor, a hat not his own, jaunty. He jumps on the bed like a beagle and accuses, “. . . smells like Aqua Velva and dick.” Veronica denies it, and she’s good at it , because she wears tough ‘tude like a prom dress. “I’d kick a three-legged cat down the stairs before I say I f—–g love you,” she contends.

Jackie runs to Ralph D, who looks like Kris Kristofferson on the make, smooth-bearded, white dude, but his wife’s got him nailed when he asks her to mix a smoothie for his pal. “Go f— yourself,” she says, and there’s a reason. There are, after all, only two candidates as to who owns the hat, and one of them is gay.

Jackie’s got no clue: he’s torched and scorched repeatedly, partly cause he’s got a code, which he sticks to except when he’s not cheating on Veronica, or leaving a pal in the lurch, or guzzling up booze. He knows his predicament. He can’t handle the world, he wants stuff and things and love, but he hasn’t got the skills. Still, Drew Cortese gives him an odd mix of potential violence, razor-like, and pouting tenderness, which is no match for Quentin Mare’s Ralph D who could self-justify with the gifts of a reasonably raging prophet. Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey is sexy and seething as Ralph’s wife. All she’s got are her looks and smarts, which she uses exactly when they’re not wanted.

Rosal Colon’s Veronica is so gut-wrenching and real. She’s no prom queen, and there are the lines of coke. But there’s something about her—her way with gritty words, the way she keeps her body in check, her sheer fierceness. It makes you wish she were off the white lines and into love.

And then there’s Liche Ariza as Cousin Julio who has a kind heart, a sense of obligation, a spirited smartness no more than when he wants to present himself as a kind of sly killer.

In this play, if they were all on the stage but in total darkness, at the same time, knowing the lines, the steps and moves, they’d draw blood, there’s be wreckage from body contact, sex and violence. Luckily, they keep the lights on, but, in the end, we recognize, and secretly empathize. You don’t have to be a Nuyorican to recognize all the times when you just couldn’t help yourself.

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