The layers on Stephen Adly Guirgis’s “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” are so delightfully constructed that peeling them back is pure theatrical joy. It’s a rarity in most urban plays, where playful language sometimes takes over theme and plot. Not for Guirgis; he sees the beauty in people that society has dismissed and he brings it out for us to see. A painting of the New York community that exists beyond the tourist spots and the Wall Street wolves. He submerges us into this world, and makes us realize these people are beyond the black and white most media present them as. Their slang becomes poetic rhymes as we travel their world in which the underprivileged breathes and has to create its own identity. A bold and important play for our current times, it makes a part of America that is foreign to many become universal. Such a master work would be a daunting task to take, but do not worry! T. Schreiber Studios and director Peter Jensen tackle it with the bravura in which the Guirgis characters take on their day to day. And just like the decisions these characters make in the production, some of them work, and some of them distract from the bigger picture.
The people that inhabit these streets are broken, they live lives that had hit them with consequences they barely had control over, but it’s of their own doing. They barely had a chance when they were born, and the best they can hope to have is a little bit of happiness at the end. The play starts with the main character Jackie, coming back home with a new job, ready to celebrate with his long time on and off girlfriend Veronica. Before the the plot kicks in, we already know these people. They are complete, fully developed and we feel it. By the time Jackie discovers the hat from the title, we are hooked. From there, they go on a journey of self-acceptance and destruction that leads into the revelations in which they will have to base their lives on moving forward. Joining them is Jackie’s AA sponsor Ralph, his wife Victoria, and Jackie’s cousin Julio. These are beautiful people, that have gone though their existence trying to just survive, never thinking of the future until the future comes.
The ensemble gives life to these characters and are not afraid to delve deep into their personas. Omar Bustamante as Jackie is a revelation here. He puts himself out there, establishing himself as the force behind the story and ultimately as the tragic character we wish he does not become. Casey Braxton provides him with the biggest challenge, as he uses his charm to enamor the audience, as well as his colleagues on stage. It’s what sets up the twist so well and makes it harder to stomach. Their last scene together is the kind of scene that every play should hope to build to. Having said that, while I think Julio’s attempt of an accent distracted from his performance, it is a scene between actor Robby Ramos and Bustamante that steals the show. When you see it, you’ll know. Hint: Van Damme comes into play. Jill Bianchini also has a powerful scene with Bustamante, in which they question who they are and the decision they have to make to feel better. These two scenes in specific set up most of the themes and then unravel them for us. Viviana Valeria did a good job as Veronica, Jackie’s love, but her age betrays her, displacing her in their age range and making the flaws in her performance more glaring. She has a problem bringing the Bronx accent out, which might be nitpicking for any production but not this one. These characters are so realistically written that such a diversion can create unnecessary distractions and slightly take the audience off the setting. Good thing the set design and transitions are so well put together that we just lose ourselves in it.
Director Peter Jensen and team took on a huge monster when they decided to produce this intimate theater work. And while it didn’t completely succeed in creating the best production they could, they did give us a more than competent vessel for Guirgis’s words. At the end of the production, we all clapped and reveled in the enjoyment of seeing something unique. Jensen’s work is the reason for that.
Out of 4 stars: