Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
January 18, 2013
It’s all about language. In one play, it’s lowbrow vs. literate. In another, it’s a poetic fusillade of F-bombs.
The name of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ most recent work can’t even be said on the radio. But I assure you, “The Motherf ** ker with the Hat” is one deeply intense, frequently funny, truly affecting exploration of love, acceptance and addiction. Or, love in spite of addiction. Growing up is in some way what all the staggering and stunningly written plays of Guirgis are about.
This relentless, intermissionless 2011 drama is set in a Puerto Rican neighborhood of New York. Jackie, an edgy addict and dealer fresh from prison, is expertly inhabited by hunky Tony Sancho. He’s a foul-mouthed fireball with his main squeeze, Veronica, who’s just been snorting coke while telling her mom to ease up on the drinking and dump her addict boyfriend. Jackie’s just gotten a job and he thinks everything’s gonna be fine now. Until he spots a stranger’s hat in Veronica’s apartment.
Things spiral out of control as Jackie goes after the mother** ker with the hat, and secrets ooze out from his AA sponsor and his wife, and from Jackie’s hilarious and heartbreaking cousin Julio, wonderfully portrayed by Christian Barillas in the terrific South Coast Rep production, directed by Michael John Garcés . The whole cast is superb, revealing a gut-wrenching array of desperate and pathetic choices, all attempts to balance co-dependence and self-destruction.
The set is a revolving marvel, the dialogue is gritty but grounded, and lyrical in its tragically comical way. In his distinctive voice, Guirgis paints a singular portrait of caring and love that leaves behind searing, haunting images.
Learning and growing are what the title character is all about in “Educating Rita,” part “Pygmalion,” part Frankenstein story. The decidedly blue-collar English young woman enrolls for an Open University tutorial with a dissipated literature professor, a washed-up poet. He’s amused by her and her quaint working-class ways, but she’s seriously hungry for knowledge, so he takes on the challenge, squeezing her in between his self-pity, self-loathing and self-destructive drinking. Predictably, each of them changes with the relationship.
Willy Russell’s 1980 comedy feels lightweight and insignificant, and too long and repetitive for its shopworn premise. But it’s an amusing skewering of English class and scholastic distinctions.
At North Coast Rep, under the direction of Rosina Reynolds, Meghan Andrews is ebullient and endearing in her wide-eyed literary innocence. Bjørn Johnson is aptly jaded as the unfulfilled old cynic who’s roused from his sloshed stupor by a youthful infusion of life into his book-buried, Gothic-windowed academic tomb.
Marty Burnett’s set is a beauty, and Chris Luessmann’s sound design deliciously evokes 1980s tunes in chamber music style.
These plays show that, in developing self-awareness, language can be used as a tool – or a weapon.
“The Motherf ** ker with the Hat” runs through January 27 at South Coast Rep in Orange County.
“Educating Rita” continues through February 3 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
©2013 PAT LAUNER