Black & Gold Review

New Orleans & Sports & Americana

Don’t Break the Deal: A Review of <em>The Motherfucker with the Hat</em>

Don’t Break the Deal: A Review of The Motherfucker with the Hat

Playing through August 17 at The Allways Lounge, NU Theatre’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker with the Hat is a funny, heartfelt contemporary slice of American depictionalism that succeeds with the force of its extraordinary language, a great performance surrounded by a number of potent ones, and the fairly steady hand of director Josh Parham. Or to put it another way: this gritty production of addiction and love in Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a nasty good time. However, all that extraordinary work is almost undone because the production breaks one of the most basic tenets of the theatrical accord between play and audience: its transitions are ill-conceived artistically and incompetently executed. Both Parham and his producers seem to have forgotten Coleridge’s rule of the suspension of disbelief, and in doing do, almost unravel their entire production. It is a testament to script, actors, and Parham’s internal work that this unraveling never occurs.

Mainstream entertainment often delivers well-off characters enjoying upper middle class problems that range from the existential–Don Draper comes to mind–to the silly (Friends, maybe: or any other sitcom, really). The Motherfucker with the Hat has a different focus. Guirgis is not interested in the crises of the comfortable. Motherfucker looks at a love quartet involving parole officers, ex-cons, and addict spouses. These characters are people whose every moment is marked by their status as underlings. Guirgis brings them to life through exceptionally effective dialogue, their words creating their world. NU Theatre, the troupe that has brought Guirgis’s characters to the New Orleans stage, has thus chosen its second major production wisely. After all, New Orleans is still a working class place full of fascinating characters who are defined by the unrefined way they talk. Even the rapid-fire Spanish-accented English of this play’s New York residents is not foreign to a New Orleans that has seen its Hispanic population increase substantially.

The actors are excellent, particularly Armando Leduc, who, as Cousin Julio, makes every scene he’s about fifty percent better. Julio is the show’s heart. That this is so might be a bad thing. Shouldn’t we care more about the relationship between Michael Aaron Santos’ reforming addict Jackie, who has just returned from prison, and Kate Kuen’s Veronica, who snorts coke from her kitchen table while on the phone with her mother? Veronica is, after all, the person who most directly spins these few days into chaos, having engaged in an on-again off-again affair with the eponymous hat-wearing motherfucker. But perhaps it’s not bad. Leduc is just that fun to watch, his performance just that moving. When, in the second act, he recounts a childhood experience between Jackie and Julio, we are absolutely riveted, and we are moved. (It was about this time that a partially-inebriated audience member, sitting behind me, said, too loudly: “That guy is so great.”)

Martin Bradford’s Ralph is funny and sleazy in appropriate doses. Ralph is the one character in this play who Guirgis might imbue more with ideas than with humanity–it’s Ralph who delivers a kind of extended ode to moral relativism near the play’s climax–but Bradford, with equal parts defensiveness and exhaustion, does exactly what the role requires.

Similarly, Michelle Martin, as Ralph’s wife Victoria, hits the right notes. She’s a long-suffering woman who, having sacrificed a materially-promising life to pursue a man she sees as her soulmate, now finds herself substantively alone and surrounded by more manic, more openly troubled individuals. The role requires Martin to exhibit comparatively internal strife; her compatriots are openly expressive, even loud. Victoria is from a different world than theirs; you can tell from her accent.

With one exception–there’s a moment in the second act when the play gets geographically lost, and we’re disoriented because a door that has served one purpose suddenly serves another–Parham has crafted a fine production. We can set the one misstep aside because we are so quickly pulled back into the play by its wonderful dialogue. But this leads us back to the show’s cardinal sin, the kind of inexcusable choice that seems endemic in New Orleans theatre.

Put simply, no care is given whatsoever to the transition from one scene to another. In one moment a character is bashed in the skull with a baseball bat. The action is sudden and jarring. The crushing thwap is perfect, the kind of noise that makes you grit your teeth, because you know a terrible thing has happened. The actor hits the stage; we are left breathless. The lights dim for a couple of seconds, but they come back…too soon. And there is our actor, up ably on his feet, dragging set items from the stage as part of a flurry of activity; actors clambering across our line of sight, stagehands wearing black clothes made pointless by the obviousness of their presence, a whole mess of people running back and forth. The effect is messy, uncontrolled. And it is not an outlier; this unruliness happens throughout. Watching these moments, we feel like Seinfeld’s George Costanza roaring at pigeons when they decide not to fly away as his car approaches them: “We had a deal!”

I’m a theatergoer. I’m not a director. I’m certainly not an actor. I’m an audience member, and the reason I see theatre is to be entertained, moved, even awed. NU Theatre’s Motherfucker does these things. It’s an outstanding display of acting talent, is generally well-directed, and is based on a stunningly good script. At times, this production is as good as the best work I’ve seen anywhere. But it’s not as good as it could be. Each scene, pulled apart from its predecessor by the mess that happens in between, is forced to do the work of convincing us to suspend disbelief all over again. By the time we do so, a wonderful scene is halfway over, and the play’s potential has been cut. This is a disservice to the talent on stage, but most of all it’s a disservice to the people in the audience. Meet us halfway. Hold up your side of the bargain. We don’t go to the theatre to see a series of well-acted sketches. We go to the theatre to observe a single, uninterrupted, powerful experience. Part of that experience is maintaining at least the illusion of attention to detail between scenes. If absolutely nothing else, drag the unmoving body of the man whose head has just been cracked open off the stage before you start rearranging the set. Do something.

Theatre in New Orleans is nearing an inflection point. Productions like The Motherfucker with the Hat aren’t just revues for fellow performers; this show could be, should be, even is legitimately wonderful entertainment. These are the kinds of productions that will one day form the core of a nationally-competitive theatre scene. But that can’t happen until every detail is attended to.

See this show because it will move you. But also see it because you won’t be moved quite as much as you could have been.

Author

Bradley Warshauer

As a kid: Once read a newspaper so intently over a candle that I did not notice its ignition.

  • Jen Pagan

    Excellent review. A beautiful script that holds no punches and is a roller coaster ride of emotion. Exactly what I like to experience when I walk into the theatre. The humanity of the characters is haunting and well played by the players. Unfortunately I emphatically agree with you about the painful transitions from scene to scene. The scene changes were like fingernails on a chalkboard that increasingly grew from an annoying “don’t fuck with my suspension of disbelief” to an apoplectic white knuckle cringe. The abrupt transition after Jackie’s head is bashed in was as palpable and heart wrenching a disappointment as Stacey Hamilton’s pool house deflowering by Damone in The Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

    My only disagreement with your review concerns the Spanish accented English. New Orleans has seen a substantial increase in the very specific “jornalero” or day laborer population, primarily Mexican, post Katrina and noteworthy because they were so visible in the rebuilding of our community. However, New Orleans has enjoyed a vibrant and large Latino community from Central America since the early to mid 1900’s when Samuel Zemurray purchased the United Fruit Company along with plantations in Honduras and a fleet of ships to transport the bananas bringing merchant marines from Central America to settle with their families in New Orleans.

    Spanglish is as colloquial as the New Orleans dialect is from Metaire to Gentilly to Uptown and Chalmette. A “chola” is not a “Nuyorican” or “”Dominican” nor a “Cubano” or “Hondurean”. Unfortunately I found myself distracted in the incongruous accents because linguistically these characters did not inhabit the same the world let alone the same neighborhood. However to their credit, while each actor created a borderline characiture rooted in Latin language, they were redeemed by their rich, often devasting and contradictory, emotional lives. A dialect coach could have bound and grounded these characters in the same linguistic world.

    As an actor and ardent theatre goer I am excited for New Orleans’ theater community, both actors and companies artistic growth. It is equally exciting to have excellent theatre criticism coverage that does not pander to personality but inspires actors and companies to elevate their craft and production value. We have the raw material, all we need is a little polish and finesse. We all serve this glorious art form in many different roles and I want to thank you for your part in elevating New Orleans theatre to the next level. Cheers to the Nu Theatre’s production of the Mother*#%^* with the Hat. It is a definite must see,heart-wrenching and enjoyable evening of theatre.

  • Justin Guidroz

    Thanks for the review! We actually run only until the 17th.