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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Lyttelton)


  Flor De Liz Perez and Ricardo Chavira/ Ph: Mark Douet

For all the mutual admiration stirred up by England and America’s constant sharing of plays and musicals, there are limits to transatlantic sympathy. Can a drama simply be “too English” or “overly American” to engage a foreign audience’s attention? For example, during a recent trip to London, I saw the wonderful Simon Russell Beale wringing his hands over Occupy London and the church’s responsibilities at the Donmar Warehouse’s Temple. Steve Waters’ literate, crisply delineated script was very, very English: improbably articulate characters passionately arguing the state of the nation. It was a little stodgy, yet also cozy, the sort of post-Shavian play of ideas that gives English theater its political and rhetorical edge over much New York fare.
That’s where Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker with the Hat comes in. This bare-knuckled and boisterously profane urban drama was also being shown in its British premiere at the National, and I fully expected to go from sociopolitical abstractions à l’Anglaise to furniture smashing in the finest Noo Yawk tradition. Imagine my surprise, then, to find Motherf**ker as deeply concerned with souls and social ethics as the Anglicans-in-anguish Temple, just with a lot more fighting and swearing.
Perhaps I’m being disingenuous. I’ve been following Guirgis, in and out of the LAByrinth Theater Company, for more than a decade, and have long known that he has a lapsed Catholic’s fascination with salvation and damnation. (Full disclosure: I wrote the lead essay for the National Theatre’s programme to accompany this production.) Still, it is a credit to Indhu Rubasingham’s muscular and lucid staging that the philosophical arguments in this piece came through so strongly. And if the overall vibe of the play seemed less authentically American (despite some members of the cast being Yankees), it was replaced by a clarifying detachment that only threw the morality-play aspects in sharper relief.
The plot concerns ex-con and recovering substance abuser Jackie (Ricardo Chavira), who is on the straight and narrow after parole and happy to have landed a job. He comes home to his tantrum-prone (and coke-snorting) girlfriend Veronica (Flor De Liz Perez), but soon notices a stranger’s hat in the room. Veronica denies that anyone has been there, but Jackie is convinced of her infidelity. Other key players include Jackie’s sponsor, Ralph (Alec Newman), whose job is to keep Jackie sober and out of jail. Yul Vázquez reprises the role he created in Motherf**ker on Broadway, Cousin Julio, a kindly but passive-aggressive relation whose sexuality seems vaguely undefined. Jackie buys a gun to deal with the “motherfucker with the hat,” but justice is not so easily achieved in this morally slippery world. The more everyone tries to do the right thing, the more they get entangled in moral mud.
Motherf**ker is essentially a shaggy-dog boulevard comedy that harbors serious ethical questions: Are moral codes the best way to reform, or do they simply provide cover for greater misbehavior? If a damaged person improves one area of his life, does that give him permission to transgress in another? Like his plays, Guirgis keeps the answers messy and unresolved. The language is combustible and rich with street poetry, and the talented actors speak it with more technical precision, perhaps, than the original actors did on Broadway, but they somewhat lack the sexual heat and comic brio that Bobby Cannavale and Chris Rock brought to the material. This version is more earnest and obviously moral than the version I remember on Broadway.
But to return to the beginning: Did English audiences get Motherf**ker? As long as Londoners understand jealousy, lust, addiction and guilt, I think they can wrap their heads around this play, the ongoing tragicomic spirit quest of one of America’s most original living playwrights.


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