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The Motherf**ker with the Hat
The Vortex Theatre

Also see Dean's review of Venus in Fur


Ed Chavez and Efrain Villa
You know a play is good when it runs an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, and you think it is too short. I could have listened to the characters in The Motherf**ker with the Hat talk all night long, luxuriating in their lingo. The play's not so much about the plot. It's about the poetry of profanity, and Stephen Adly Guirgis gets it right. Except for a few phony-sounding lines early on, the dialogue is totally natural (not stylized like Mamet's often is). This is how these people would talk, and it entertained the hell out of me.

There are about a thousand uses of "fuck" and all of its variations, and it isn't offensive at all, at least not to me and most likely not to anyone who would go to a play with "Motherf**ker" in the title. Instead, it's exhilarating, it gives you a kind of high. The play is hilarious. And then it leaves with you with a little hole in your heart at the very end. Which is what makes it so good.

It's a New York City play, but it could be anywhere in America. Jackie has just gotten out of prison after a two year stint upstate, is visiting his cokehead girlfriend Veronica back in the city, and finds a man's hat in her bedroom, smells Aqua-Velva on the pillows, and something else lower down. You can see the parole violation coming.

To cool down, Jackie visits his AA sponsor Ralph, who appears to be living a square middle-class lifestyle, all into nutrition and supplements now. Ralph's wife Victoria is not exactly content with the marriage. The only other character is Julio, Jackie's cousin who came from Puerto Rico as a youth. I'm a little confused about Julio, and maybe he's a little confused too. He says everybody used to call him a mariconcito, a little faggot, but now he's "put that behind him—pardon the pun" and is married to Marisol, who I assume is a woman. Anyway, a straight-up guy (although maybe not in every sense of the word "straight") and the moral center of the play.

Like I said, it's not so much about the plot as it is about the interactions of these characters and how they talk to each other. Except for Julio, they're all addicts, some recovering, some who can't. Their behavior is human nature raw, exposed, not hiding behind a veneer of sophistication or stature. They're kind of noble in their fucked-up-ness.

Leslee Richards, the director, has assembled a terrific cast and really has put them through their paces. Everything scene moves, no downtime, excellent timing in the dialogues. Alicia Lueras Maldonado is cynical and taut as Veronica, and doesn't seem to mind spending a lot of her time on stage in her underwear. Sarcastic, smart, but unable to control her addiction, Veronica is not a pleasant person, not to others and not to herself. But she has the last word in the play, and the way Maldonado delivers it has stuck with me for several days now. It's a heartbreaker.

The least distinctive role in the play is Victoria. Michelle Estrada Allred does a fine job with it, but I wish she had more to do. I've never seen Eliot Stenzel better than he is here as Ralph, the amoral (or immoral) counter to the other characters. Finally, a role that shows us how good he can be.

The very hunky Efrain Villa is perfectly cast and all-out charming and honest as Julio. I sure hope he decides to stick around and do more theater in Albuquerque. Ed Chavez is one of our city's best comic actors, and he pulls off Jackie's lines with wonderful timing and body movements. The only thing he doesn't convey is a sense of danger that you would expect of an ex-con, the worry that he might go off and pop someone at any moment. This is partly a matter of physical presence (he's not big enough to be threatening), and partly because Ed Chavez just seems like too nice a guy to ever hurt anyone.

The expansive set by Mary Rossman (probably the biggest one I've seen at the Vortex) very cleverly accommodates all the action—in Veronica's bedroom, in Ralph's apartment, and in Julio's backyard—without necessitating any waiting between scenes. The props by Frank Fine (a lava lamp and shelves full of nutritional supplements are just two of the standouts) perfectly define the locations. The lighting by Brian McNamara is fine, too, but two large and jam-packed "urban" murals by John F. Lorne don't get the emphasis they deserve.

The play, as I said, kept me laughing, but ultimately it reminds me of some lyrics from one of my favorite songs: "You don't know how hearts ache/For love that cannot live but never dies/Until you face each dawn with sleepless eyes/You don't know what love is." As Mr. Guirgis might write, "How fucking sad. How fucking true."

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Leslee Richards, is being performed at the Vortex Theatre in Albuquerque through April 14, 2013. Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Info at www.vortexabq.org or 505-247-8600.


Photo: Alan Mitchell Photography

--Dean Yannias



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