Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Motherfucker with the Hat
Director Carl Overly, Jr. draws excellent performances from his cast of two-timers and twelve-steppers. The characters in this 2011 play can't stay out of trouble, perhaps because they were born and bred to it. Everyone has a history of something they can't get over, or can't give up, that's eating them alive. And every now and then, drugs and sex bring them back to the point of killing someone else on stage.
The biggest comic element is in the language itself, used by these struggling drug and sex addicts. In nearly every scene, one character or another will lash out like a wild animal. But then another will code-shift into the placating speech of recovery, acknowledging what the other person has said, and then trying to analyze how all that effects each of them, processing each micro-aggression and backsliding, like a Puerto Rican Dr. Joyce Brothers, even fretting over the invisible "third person" that is the relationship itself. Which is hilarious, when the couples and their friends usually share the same feisty behavioral tics as the characters from the classic 1950s TV series, "The Honeymooners."
Please don't let that be your only takeaway from this review, though, because there's an even bigger classic comedy comparison yet to be found, beneath the surface. And it's strangely heartwarming that Jackie (Adam Flores) and all his friends have found a lifeline in Alcoholics Anonymous, or in sex addiction therapy, and are awkwardly trying to incorporate those virtues into their daily lives. Of course, it's a lifeline they subversively try to cut again and again at regular intervals. So the recovery lifestyle, managed by its own addicts, creates some very personal crises, which R-S Theatrics mines for deep, dark laughs all the way through this 100-minute play.
Mr. Flores is great as Jackie, who's in and out of prison and trying to stay in recovery in spite of everyone else on stage and the mind-altering habits that often do the talking for them. But ultimately this Jackie seems even more like the play's version of Stan Laurel, rather than Jackie Gleason (Ralph Kramden on "The Honeymooners"). That's partly because all the hostile onstage effects of addiction add up to a "meta" version of Stan Laurel's blustery film partner, Oliver Hardy. Hardy would slap Laurel around whenever a grand piano would go sliding down a flight of stairs. Mr. Flores plays an updated version of this sad clown here, and most of Jackie's emotional injuries come from his beautiful girlfriend Veronica, played by Sofia Lidia (who is tempting and horrific by turns). But how can all this be funny? That grand piano, crashing down the stairs, is their relationship. It's funny, and it isn't, at the same time. That's how good this play is.
Aaron Dodd is very fine as Jackie's A.A. sponsor Ralph D., who's mastered the recovery idiom, or fashion, and in fact seems to be fully recovered at first. Taleesha Caturah plays his partner Victoria, and she's always good on stage. But this time she is orders of magnitude greater than in her past performances, displaying a bright natural sense of light comedy. Her work is one of the most delightful surprises in this production.
Jesse Muñoz is subtly funny as as Jackie's cousin, a recovering sex addict: you can see him starting to smolder and wince when the other men talk about their girlfriends, as if he's urgently talking himself out of a promiscuous life, all over again. Later, he displays great comic ability as he and Jackie go to confront a rival in love, who happens to have misplaced his hat. Elsewhere, Mr. Muñoz and Mr. Dodd become bro-y metrosexuals in an unlikely discussion of diet and fitness and appearance. It's then that Mr. Flores' Jackie grows exasperated, in a style made famous by "The Honeymooners"'s Ralph Kramden.
Ralph would simmer and stew and finally explode, when his sanitation-worker friend Ed Norton would suddenly get fussy in his off-time, back up from New York's filthy sewer system. It's the same gag here, occasionally, as when tough guys are suddenly talking about their hair care. But the production develops a stronger picture of Jackie as the hapless Stan Laurel, beaten up emotionally by all the addicts around him. Surprising how well that still works here, in younger hands, so many years later.
The Motherfucker with the Hat, through February 10, 2019, at the .Zack theatre, 3324 Locust Avenue, St. Louis MO. For more information click on this link: www.r-stheatrics.com.