Lyttelton, National Theatre, London
There’s something almost sweet and naive about Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Leaving aside the f-word expletives that splatter his characters’ dialogue, close your eyes and you could be hearing the bash and rumble of Armistead Maupin’s much loved collection of downtown San Francisco queers, transgender madames and others in Tales of the City. Except this is downtown NYC and Guirgis’ protagonists hail from the outer edges of small time criminality.
There’s Jackie, on parole and a recovering alcoholic, his `sponsor’, Ralph, similarly recovering and their respective amours: Veronica, Jackie’s girlfriend constantly described by Ralph as an `addict’ – though apart from the odd line of coke, Flor De Liz Perez’s Veronica resembles more a sparky, younger version of West Side Story’s Maria than a down-at-heel junkie. Victoria, charmed by the amoral Ralph into rejecting a high earning city life, is at the sharper end of desperation, seeing at mid-30, her life slipping away from her.
Set in three different NYC neighbourhoods – Robert Jones’s set designs are a wonder of quick change environments dominated by typical NYC fire-escapes – all four are grappling to hang on to whatever self-esteem they can muster in language as richly comic as it is colourfully, inventively obscene.
How these characters can swear in the course of trying to locate their emotions and truth in relation to the others! One outstanding scene – a knock-down confrontation triggered by Ralph’s `betrayal’ of Jackie with Veronica – elicits a fantastic exploration by Guirgis on the nature of friendship and sex, being sober and human frailty.
In Indhu Rubasingham’s Anglo-American cast (courtesy of UK Equity) it’s impossible to differentiate the limeys from the Americanos. But one stands out as unique. Yul Vázquez’s Julio – Jackie’s cousin, `playground faggot’ (in his own words) and sometime protector.
Vázquez with something of a Brando drawl creates a character of bizarre, wondrous mystery: gym fanatic, health freak with a `Van Damme’ potential for causing serious bodily harm closely but only barely under control.
Rubasingham’s production is loud and visceral, as it should be, its ending sad rather than tragic. A soap opera by any other name. But classy with it.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat is at the National Theatre to Aug 20, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate, June 2015