An egg cracked for an omelette is raw. A patch of sunburned skin is raw. Stephen Adly Guirgis's coruscating The Motherfu**er With the Hat (2011), filling Obsidian Theater's intimate space with choked laughter and surprised, bated intakes of life-affirming breaths, takes raw to new heights. It transcends it.
The entire title can't be printed in any genteel press, but the offending four-letter, 16th-century obscenity is repeated by every character until it's a mantra. Guirgis's people use the f-word like a noun, verb, adjective, gerund, you name any part of speech, and they'll spit it out to describe what's happening and how they're feeling. It's their defining word. It becomes them. It's as gritty as they are. Everybody's go-to profanity to everything, anytime.
But there's another four-letter word swirling through the play, just not used so frequently or with such cavalier abandon.
It's what these losers, falling headfirst into a hell of their own making, so desperately want. That's what they're here for, what they're addicted to, what they desire more than life itself. Sure, they may be addicts of other substances – booze, coke, pills – but that's because they can't get what they really crave, what they waste their meager lives chasing in a futile round-robin. Why can't the ones they want, the ones they need, see that and merely need them in return? Fat chance. They're desperate for connection, but everyone else is on his or her own track. The word, of course, is "love."
Take sad-sack Jackie (a phenomenally perceptive Luis Galindo). On parole, he's miraculously gotten a chance to get his life back together. Honoring his 12-step program, he's sworn off alcohol and drugs and has even found a job that offers him a future. Since the eighth grade, his dream girl has been hottie Veronica (firebrand Patricia Duran), but she's hooked on coke and isn't stopping anytime soon. He can change that, he thinks foolishly. He bounds into their squalid Times Square rental with a bouquet of flowers, a chocolate bar, a little teddy bear and movie tickets, giddy in hopes of a night of unabashed celebratory sex. He's ready to pounce, down to his skivvies and lustful stare, when what should he notice on a side table but a man's hat. That's not his hat. That's not Veronica's hat. Who the f**k's hat is it?! Somebody's been here. With her! He can smell the Aqua Velva on the sheets, among other man smells. His descriptive accusations, wildly funny if they wouldn't hurt so much, don't faze her. She denies everything, but we and Jackie know the awful truth. Wily, slyly, she diverts his attention by suggesting they go have pie – a calming ritual from their sweeter past. So ends the disturbing first scene.
Hot, dirty, brazen, this is not your father's sex farce. This isn't even your grandfather's sex farce. This is something wildly dirt-smeared and original, yet somehow comforting in a disquieting way. What the hell's gonna happen next? This is grunge Feydeau via dirty needle jab. And like the method used by that grand master farceur, the archetypes appear – with a vengeance but updated to skid row: the philandering husband, the neglected wife, the best buddy with his own nefarious agenda, the outlying cousin, mistaken identities, misunderstandings, red herrings, false facades. Everybody wants what somebody else has. Everybody's on the make.
Their everyday lives are swamped with quashed hopes and forgotten dreams, and that turbulence brings forth a quintet of broken people. They want to be good; they really do believe it deep down “in their heart,” but they always fall short because living one day at a time is hard enough without the easy temptation of reality. They talk smack, they do smack, they betray their true loves, they betray their friends, they make lame excuses, they hurt, they beat each other up, they just want to be happy. They plow through life and make choices, but they're always the wrong ones.
Under James Belcher's razor-sharp direction, the ensemble is eye-opening perfect and accurate, and never makes a false move. What glorious performances. Guirgis supplies each of them with heart-stopping mini-monologue revelations, and the actors enlarge their characters by burrowing deep under the skin. The effect is an unbelievable rush of black and blue. Vice in ironic 3-D.
Sufficiently recovered from the bashing he took in Stages' The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Galindo is bruised anew at Obsidian. His Jackie wants to be true to that illusive “code of honor” that guys live by, but if he lies to himself, what chance does he have to make good? Success slips from his grasp, and you see his face fall too. He becomes smaller as the play enfolds, until he's lying in a heap on the floor bawling his eyes out because Veronica has been unfaithful and his life is a total f**k-up. (There's that word again.) That he's been unfaithful to her doesn't quite register in his book of bad manners. He's deliciously dopey and full of himself, and this lug still believes he can get Veronica back.
As Veronica, Duran undergoes a startling transformation. As if encased in armor, she's one tough broad, lacquered in a decidedly low-rung veneer. She swears a blue streak, even when talking to her addict mom on the phone in her intro scene, which sets the stage for everything to come, but her dreams for the picket-fence life in the suburbs with Jackie have been deferred for eons. Like everyone else in the play, she knows how to get what she wants today, but tomorrow is definitely on hold. She's desperate for life, with a heart wailing to be mended.
Ralph D. is Jackie's sponsor. A former addict, he's cool, collected, smooth, has it made as owner of a health food storefront. As opportunistic as Iago, as slick as Sportin' Life, he quotes the Bible, prays with Jackie when he fears for his charge's relapse, and counsels him to do better, grow up, be a man. That Ralph doesn't abide by his own rules isn't important; that's his burden, he says with oily insinuation. I am myself, he declares to a disbelieving Jackie; now go, and be yourself. Because it's Atseko Factor saying this hypocrisy, we believe it. At first. When we find out who and what he is inside, we shudder at our naiveté. Velvety, soft-spoken Mr. Factor wheedles himself under our skin with effortless ease. What a devilish con man he has become.
Victoria is Ralph's disillusioned wife, and Courtney Lomelo plays her with an impressively impassioned depth. All she wants is someone to talk to, and she seems more lost than anyone. High on pot, she tries to seduce Jackie, and when rebuffed – “What are we, Europeans?” Jackie blurts out, eluding her embrace – she goes for the jugular, spilling everything she knows about Veronica and Ralph's multiple trysts. If she can't find a heart, she'll break the nearest one. In her wrenching monologue, Lomelo lays out her aimless existence, her aching need to forget. It's the most spellbinding few minutes on a stage I've seen in many a season. There's an eerie hush throughout the house, punctuated by appreciative silent tears.
Then there's showstopping swishy Cousin Julio, a health nut, a married gay man (to a woman), and perhaps the most honorable character around. Rhett Martinez, in frilly apron and machismo-less appearance that belies his stout heart of gold, sashays to a different beat. His code of family is etched deep, and when anyone does wrong to his cousin Jackie, he's ready and able to go all “Van Damme” on that person. He loves Jackie but doesn't like him, but he's family and that's all there is to it. Martinez finds the iron spine that keeps Julio erect through all the buffeting he's had to endure. He's his own man, and Martinez gets our respect.
Obsidian does extremely right by Stephen Adly Guirgis, except for the horrible oversight that his name is nowhere in the playbill. In some ways this blistering production takes this playwright of the down-and-outers (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Our Lady of 121st Street, Pulitzer Prize-winning More) and raises him to another level. The territory he surveys is rough and lowdown, harsh and unforgiving, perhaps with a glimmer of hope in that open door as the last thing we see. But Obsidian's immaculate staging is nigh heavenly, albeit one without angels. Drew Hoovler and Star Hinson's Murphy bed setting is Houdini-like, while the unlisted costumer gives grunge a gloss of high couture.
This is challenging theater, to be sure, but if you're up for such stimulating provocation, this play about love gone wrong is fu**ing exceptional. That word again!
The Motherf**ker With the Hat is scheduled for. 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays through October 15. Obsidian Theater, 3522 White Oak. For more information, call 832-889-7837 or visit obsidiantheater.org. $15-$30.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.