At Kitchen Dog Theater, Whose Hat Is It Anyway?

Some characters in plays are people you'd like to know in real life. In The Motherfucker with the Hat, the five characters, with maybe one exception, you are happy to walk away from after 95 minutes. That's how long Stephen Adly Guirgis' profanity-spewing dark comedy lasts and that's more than enough time spent with Jackie and Veronica and Ralph and Victoria, all addicts in one way or another, and all pretty horrible human beings. The one nice guy is Uncle Julio, a fey and brutally honest health-juice fanatic who tries to talk sense to his violent nephew Jackie, an ex-con druggie with a quick temper. Jackie doesn't listen. Jackie is an idiot.

Kitchen Dog Theater gets about all it can get out of this Motherfucker in the regional premiere of a thin play that tries to address complex issues surrounding substance abuse and recovery. The cast of local stars is good under the direction of Jamie Castaneda. The depiction of three distinct locations — a scrungy New York studio apartment, a nicer Manhattan living room and a cafe juice bar — is nicely laid out, including three separate ceilings, by scenic designer Bryan Wofford.

It's how Guirgis' characters talk to and treat each other that will make you sorry you didn't have more wine in the lobby before the show. Make that more wine and a Xanax. They do wear out the last nerve.

We first see red-hot Veronica, played by callipygian Kitchen Dog company member Christie Vela, alone in her tiny flat, where her messy bed is arm's distance from a kitchen counter crowded with liquor bottles. She's blabbing a mile a minute to her alcoholic mom on the phone, begging her mother to stop seeing the boyfriend Veronica describes as a "fuckin' big-time loser with a head like a actual fuckin' fish!" As she yaks to Mama, Veronica straightens wrinkled sheets and pillows, pausing to snort some lines of white powder off a dime-sized dining table. Then she offers more advice: "Ma, when you see him tonight, take a moment. Take a breath. Take a real good look and just ax yourself in all honesty — 'Do I wanna fuck him or fry him up with a little adobo and paprika?'"

Vela's a wonder at dialogue like this, riffing streams of blue language as naturally as breathing. Hers is the performance that clicks best with the rhythms of the play. "I'd rather spit in a nun's cunt than give an inch," Veronica says. That's one of the character's nicer utterances.

In comes Veronica's man, Jackie (Christopher Carlos), giddy with success. He's out on parole after a stretch in the state penal system, 12-stepping with his AA sponsor Ralph (Michael Federico) and he's just landed a good job in apartment maintenance that could lead to a union gig as a building super. To celebrate, Jackie presents his lady with gifts: a candy bar, a "teddy bear that grips shit" and lotto tickets. He calls Veronica his "Mamacita Love Me Long Time Princess fuckin' Beauty Queen" and gets ready to make love. Then, as he's stripping down to his boxers while Veronica's in the shower, whomp, whomp, he spies a strange gray hat on the chair. The mood switches from honeymoon glow to a noisy inquisition about whom Veronica has been entertaining. Is she screwing the hat-wearing mofo downstairs? Jackie does a quick bit of forensic sniffing of the bed linens: "Why does our bed smell like Aqua Velva and dick?"

With Jackie's rage brewing — though in the controlled way that hints of time spent in anger management counseling — Veronica tries to defuse the situation. She suggests going out for some pie. "Look, let's just go there," she says, "to the pie place, and we'll have, like, some pie, and we'll just, like, talk, or not even talk. We'll just eat pie first and be. And after that, we'll talk." This is how Guirgis writes. It's fun to listen to for a little bit. Ninety-something minutes of it, laced as it is with simple and compound expletives, gets to be less and less fun with each scene. Vela sounds the most authentic spouting Guirgis' percussive, plosive-ridden language. Carlos not so much.

Down they go, these characters, like human dominoes. Veronica's alleged adultery sets off Jackie's addiction again, which triggers Ralph, which makes Ralph's tired-of-it-all wife, Victoria (Liza Marie Gonzalez, speaking too softly to be heard from where I was sitting), pack her things and leave. Victoria does some bad stuff, too. Like the other characters, she's a mad motherfucker in the morality department.

In the 2011 Broadway production, Ralph the AA sponsor was played by comedian Chris Rock, making his New York theater debut. At Kitchen Dog, Michael Federico couldn't be less like Rock as Ralph. For one thing, Federico is a short white guy. So when Ralph talks about doing yoga and says, "I may be an asshole, but I'm fuckin' limber, bro," it's maybe not as hilarious as it was coming out of Rock's mouth. Not that Federico isn't a good actor. He is. This just isn't a good fit of actor and role. Ralph is Motherfucker's biggest, most egotistical asshole. His behavior is the crux of the play's theme about the moral failings of addicts and reformed addicts. And Federico just doesn't exhibit enough charming smarm. Some. But not enough.

That nice guy, Uncle Julio, played with gentle comic flair by Anthony Ramirez, is supposed to counterbalance everyone else's rottenness. He's a health freak and a sweet soul in a shiny track suit. But he's superfluous to the rest of the play and his scenes slow everything down. One of his scenes seems to exist solely to give Guirgis the chance to work up to this exit line: "Leave the gun; take the empanadas." It's a twist on a famous line from The Godfather. Now those were some interesting motherfuckers who all wore hats.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner