"The Mother… With the Hat" is not the actual title of the exhilarating Stephen Adly Guirgis play now at South Coast Repertory, but it's the best I can do without bringing down the strong arm of the censor. Hard as it might be for casual cursers to believe, naughty words still have the power to offend.
Guirgis knows this on a deeper level than most. His characters throw the profanity equivalent of Molotov cocktails at one another. They're foulmouthed artists, spinning obscenely colorful invective to inflict as much damage as possible on their targets. But their ability to hurt is in direct proportion to their capacity to be hurt. They lash out more in vulnerability than in vindictiveness, though unless you want to be f-bombed to smithereens I wouldn't bother pointing this out to them.
Much of the originality of this dark comedy lies in its relentless verbal attack, the springy way the vulgarity is slung. Director Michael John Garcés, however, is drawn more to the story than the slang in his solid if occasionally sluggish SCR production. He approaches the drama with deliberate realism, casting actors who make up in grit what they lack in theatrical glamour.
The production doesn't have the same velocity of Anna D. Shapiro's 2011 Broadway staging, which featured Bobby Cannavale, Chris Rock and a fiercely fabulous Elizabeth Rodriguez (all of whom are reuniting with their fellow original cast members at the end of the month for L.A. Theatre Works readings). Indeed, there are patches when the action, slowed down by actors who don't want to miss an emotional beat, could use a jolt from jumper cables. But the picture that emerges of an ex-addict stumbling along the recovery pathway has a raw authenticity even when the situation grows wildly comic.
Tony Sancho plays Jackie, a former drug dealer and addict on parole who's trying to turn his life around with help from his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor Ralph D. (Larry Bates). Excited about landing a job, Jackie is eager to have a romantic evening with his longtime girlfriend, Veronica (Elisa Bocanegra), when he notices a strange man's hat next to their bed. Jackie suspects Veronica has been cheating on him, and the play follows his hot-headed pursuit of the chapeau's owner, a wild chase that leads to a deeper understanding of the long, hard and lonely road of recovery.
The author of such strafing urban dramas as "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" and "Our Lady of 121st Street," Guirgis, one of the co-artistic directors of New York's Labyrinth Theater Company, doesn't so much write dialogue as shouting matches. His characters are combatants, hardened by streets that are as mean as any battlefield. In the productions of his plays I've seen directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, the confrontations are pitched from the start at blaring volume and only grow more vociferous.
SCR's "The Mother… With the Hat," unwinding on Nephelie Andonyadis' revolving set of modest apartments, similarly plays out like a series of clashes. But Guirgis seems to take greater pleasure in the humor of this combustible New York world than he did in his earlier plays. Even at their angriest, the characters fashion their insults with an eccentric delight that turns crudeness into outrageous hilarity.
There's more emotional generosity on display as well. Relationships are still riddled with land mines, as Ralph D. and his embittered, wine-guzzling wife, Victoria (Cristina Frias), also attest. But the longing for tenderness, for relief from the bruising grind, is palpable.
Guirgis introduces a wonderful wild card into this feisty deck, a character so oddly himself he feels absolutely true. Julio (a winning Christian Barillas), Jackie's cousin, is a wiry, slightly mincing fellow with a penchant for cooking, hospitality and saying what needs to be said even when the other person doesn't want to hear it. Jackie turns to Julio in his hour of need, and Julio, though he's dismayed by his cousin's flagrant selfishness, joins him in confronting the discovered owner of the offending hat.
At the start of Garcés' production, Bocanegra's Veronica wanders around her sloppy one-room apartment with her fleshy belly all exposed, snorting cocaine as she gives advice on the phone to her apparently equally messed up mother. Veronica's foul mouth is fairly shocking, but what really startles is her utter disregard for appearances. She's not who you expect to meet at a theater that's just a stone's throw from the luxurious boutiques of South Coast Plaza, and this is why her presence is such a tonic.
There are no stars in the ensemble, just hardworking actors committed to portraying their characters with as much genuineness as possible. At times Sancho's Jackie doesn't seem to have enough theatrical dynamism to drive the play, but there's a touching ordinariness to his characterization and Bocanegra, Bates and Frias certainly know how to raise the volume when needed.
At Saturday afternoon's performance, the audience skewed older, as they tend to at matinees, and I wondered how those in attendance would respond to the play's unremittingly coarse language. Sitting between two seniors, I noticed one was laughing uproariously while the other was shifting uncomfortably in her seat. By the end, I'm happy to report, both offered ovations at full blast.
'The Mother… With the Hat'
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 pm. Saturdays-Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends Jan. 27.
Contact: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org
Running time: 2 hours