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THEATER REVIEW: “The Motherf**ker With The Hat” is mesmerizing

Any playwright who can keep me in a seat for two hours straight without serious fidgeting is doing something right. That Stephen Adly Guirgis can do it when the topics are substance abuse, infidelity and unemployment is nothing short of miraculous.

A stunning production of Guirgis’ provocatively titled “The Motherf**ker With The Hat” plays through Jan. 27 at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, brilliantly directed by Michael John Garcés

I’d say this is a meditation on the human condition (or at least a human condition), but that sounds too ponderous for a play that is at once sad, desperate, profane – and extremely funny.

Take Jackie (Tony Sancho), for example. A recovering alcoholic recently released from the slammer, he is trying to stay sober and find a job and – well, a better life. He’s heavily involved in a 12-step program, and this day he returns home in an up mood with flowers for Veronica (Elisa Bocanegra), his girlfriend “since the eighth grade” – and a coke addict.

Jackie has a major announcement: he’s found a job “with career advancement” as porter in a large building, and he’s looking to celebrate.

Veronica insists on showering, and while she’s gone he notices two things on the bedside table: a strange “man hat” (not his) and traces of coke. He leaps, both to the obvious conclusion and onto the bed, where he sniffs around and detects “Aqua Velva and dick.”

The confrontation that results drives Jackie to his AA sponsor, Ralph D. (Larry Bates), who has his own relationship problems with disaffected and angry wife Victoria (Cristina Frias) but who is able to talk Jackie out of his homicidal intention. In fact, he invites Jackie to stay with them until he calms down sufficiently.

The fifth character is Jackie’s Cousin Julio (Christian Barillas), a stand-by-me kind of guy who has the most affecting monologue of the bunch when he explains why that is.

Desperation, they say, lends itself to comedy, and these characters are, if not desperate, at least stuck – in poverty, in addiction, in cycles of lying, deceit and violence both emotional and physical. Most of their problems are of their own doing, and it’s a testament to Guirgis’ skill and the cast’s fine work that their attempts to work them out are both riveting and often darkly funny.

Sancho’s Jackie is a roiling barrel of pain, ambition, good intentions, fear and hope; Sancho’s portrayal makes you hope Jackie’s basic decency will trump some of his baser instincts.

Bocanegra’s Veronica is volatile and angry much of the time, displaying an emotional armor publicly that can’t cover the hurt underneath. She loves but does not trust Jackie any more than he trusts her.

Bates’ Ralph D. thinks his ability to talk himself into or out of situations entitles him to certain bad behavior, and Frias’ Victoria, a recovering addict, is angry and hurt most of the time.

Barillas is a find as Julio, the clearly gay (but married to a woman) cousin who tries to help Jackie.

Garcés, helped by scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis’ fine revolving set, keeps the pace clicking and the actors take care of the drama and laughs.

These are tough lives, expressed in tough talk. “The Motherf**ker With The Hat” is brutally honest and ruefully funny – and a thought-provoking evening of theater – but it’s not for those who object to earthy, profane language.

The details

“The Motherf**ker With The Hat” plays through Jan. 27 at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

Tuesday-Sunday at 7:45 pm; matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2 pm.

For tickets: 714-708-5555 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.