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Obscenities no substitute for substance in brutal, entertaining “Motherf**ker With the Hat”

Randy Cohlmia (Jackie) and Denise Arribas (Veronica) are part of a strong ensemble cast. (Photos by Mark DeLong)
Randy Cohlmia and Denise Arribas are part of a strong ensemble cast. (Photos by Mark DeLong)

“You fake AA motherf**kers make me sick!” declares Veronica (Denise Arribas) about the sanctimonious language of Alcoholics Anonymous in the show “The Motherf**ker With the Hat.” “You’re all the time preaching honesty and selflessness, meanwhile you’re more dishonest and selfish than half of C Block at f**kin’ Rikers!” The line’s bawdy imprecations of dishonesty and hypocrisy encapsulate something of the thrust of the play, at Actor’s Express through April 14.

The characters may be able to communicate their frustrations, desires and aspirations in creatively vulgar language, but they fail time and again to make their way in a world with no moral certainties or guideposts. As Veronica points out and the action reveals: look at the guideposts too long and you’ll find they’re no different from the gutter they’re meant to pull you out of.

Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis may be most familiar to Atlanta audiences as a writer for TV shows such as “The Sopranos” and “NYPD Blue.” But he’s also an accomplished playwright and artistic director at New York’s LAByrinth Theater, where his plays focus on the colorful and sharply incisive, but dimly self-aware, characters of New York’s underclass. His “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” was picked up for Broadway, where it starred comedian Chris Rock in 2011.

Julio (Luiz Hernandez, left) confronts Ralph D (Neal A. Ghant).

The play focuses on the dissolving relationship between newly paroled and recovering alcoholic Jackie (Randy Cohlmia) and his girlfriend, Veronica. In the opening scene, things are looking up for them: Jackie has just found a job, and the pair express their excitement, hopes and passion for each other in a Baroque fugue of colorfully fervent cursing. It all comes to an abrupt halt when Jackie spots a stranger’s hat in their apartment and suspects Veronica of having an affair. His world starts to unravel, and he seeks help alternately from his AA sponsor, Ralph D. (Neal A. Ghant), and his Cousin Julio (Luis Hernandez).

The strong ensemble cast latches on to the characters’ no-nonsense, forthright urban attitudes and runs with them. Ghant plays the part that Rock had on Broadway, a recovering addict who has replaced his addictions with affectations regarding health food and recovery, which do double duty as class aspirations. Ghant brings a compelling clarity to the part, especially when he offers a harsh depiction of Alcoholics Anonymous in a crucial late scene. Seeing him slowly stripped bare of the notion of rehabilitation and honesty becomes one of the play’s most troubling — and best — moments.

But it’s Hernandez who has the funniest role, and he shines in it. His Julio is a speaker of truth in a world that’s clogged with shallow insults and petty deceit. His stories about his and Jackie’s shared childhood in Morningside Heights are not just engaging and insightful; they become the play’s moral center.

The staging of the show is almost impeccable. The claustrophobic and cluttered “urban jungle” set design is great, though the various apartments don’t seem different enough. The characters are meant to vary a great deal in their levels of financial success and stability, and we should see a bit more of that in the scene changes.

The characters, the dialogue, the atmosphere of guns, drugs and track suits, and even the explication of moral relativism in a brutal, bottom-feeding world seem familiar. The Quentin Tarantino aesthetic is everywhere now, even on Broadway. But unlike Tarantino, Guirgis relies too heavily on the audience’s willingness to assimilate some remote and disparate reactions: we’re expected to be amused by these city bumpkins even as we share a moral journey with them.

For “Motherf**ker” to work, Guirgis’ perspective on class must be wholeheartedly accepted as knowing, accurate, funny and provocative. If you have doubts or find Jackie’s crude selfishness and unmitigated self-pity off-putting, it’s unlikely the play will succeed with you. The characters, though amusing, will remain remote. It becomes “The Honeymooners” with four-letter words and pharmaceuticals.

“Nobody knows nobody,” Veronica says toward the end. It’s an understandable way for a character to feel, but it’s exactly what we the audience come to the theater to climb our way out of. The play is entertaining, amusing and occasionally shocking. Though it makes motions toward something larger, it never quite materializes enough heft and substance before the final blackout.

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