City Lights: The play with the unprintable name

This column would be so easy to write if only I worked for OC Weekly.

At that rakish-and-proud-of-it publication, just about anything goes, and that includes swear words. But here I am stuck at an apparently family-friendly paper, which poses a significant problem in describing South Coast Repertory's upcoming play.

The other week our theater critic, Tom Titus, emailed a list of shows that he planned to review. When we noticed the title of the play opening at SCR on Jan. 6, we held an impromptu huddle to decide how to print it in Times Community News papers. What we finally settled on was "The [Expletive] with the Hat" — that expletive being a 12-letter word that starts with "M" and that, frankly, we all heard seven or eight times a day in middle school.

No, it's not a nice word, but after hearing it so many times for so many years, it's doubtful that hearing it once more would do much harm. Still, we have our ethical standards to uphold, and so do many others. Wikipedia, democratic site that it is, prints the title unaltered but notes that it's sometimes censored as "The Mother with the Hat," which sounds more like a nursery rhyme.

On SCR's website, the title appears with a pair of asterisks between the "F" and "K." The email that the theater sent to its mailing list this week did an even more elaborate job of dancing around the obvious: The subject line was "The Hit Play with the Irreverent Title," while the body contained a headline proclaiming "One Funny Mother of a Play" and quoted the New York Times calling it "the play that dare not speak its name."

(Just an aside: "The [Unpleasant Person] with the Hat" comes on the theater's schedule right on the heels of "A Christmas Carol," which has been a family staple there for decades. You can't say SCR doesn't aim for a wide audience.)

Has producing Stephen Adly Guirgis' comedy, which described as "a high-octane verbal cage match about love, fidelity and misplaced haberdashery," posed any problems for SCR? How about theaters that have staged it in the past? Curious, I contacted our local playhouse, as well as the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in New York, which premiered the play in 2011, and TheaterWorks in Connecticut, which hosted it later that year.

First, I called SCR spokeswoman Tania Thompson (and, surrounded by newsroom colleagues, I found myself censoring the title over the phone — heck, I don't want to create a hostile work environment). As it turned out, she and her staff have more than one euphemism for the title, in case, for example, they have to discuss it while in line at Starbucks.

"Because of reference points that we have, it can be 'The Hat Play,'" Thompson said. "There are some ways that it can be abbreviated with some people."

At other times, the theater management just calls the work "The Guirgis Play," after the playwright. Thompson noted that the headline in the email release, "One Funny Mother of a Play," was meant to obscure the title even further to keep with the spirit of the holidays.

It turns out SCR isn't the only theater that's committed double-censorship.

Freddie McInerney, the community relations director of TheaterWorks, said his group printed the title on fliers with standard curse signals — "#@*&" — between the "F" and "R," but then feared that even that way, it would hit a snag in the mail. So when the title appeared on the cover of the theater's season brochure, McInerney's team superimposed a few strips of masking tape after "Mother-," with "Censored!" written over the tape.

According to a Hartford Courant article that McInerney sent me, many locations around town that had posted ads for TheaterWorks' previous show declined to showcase "The [Disreputable Individual]." The story also notes that box-office employees sometimes "coughed" over the word on the phone. (A representative from the Shubert Organization, which produced the play in New York, declined comment.)

Obviously, if a theater opts to take that big a risk with a title, the play itself must be something. Thompson raved about it when I spoke with her and said there was far more to Guirgis' work than shock value.

"It's a play about folks who are kind of on the edge of falling apart," she said. "They're kind of desperate, but sometimes great comedy begins with desperation. It's a really funny play."

So how many times does The Word appear in the actual play? Years ago, Entertainment Weekly used to compile boxes listing the F-words in "Glengarry Glen Ross" and other movies with a steady dose of blue language. Thompson, though, said she didn't have statistics on hand.

"I don't know that anybody's done a count like that," she told me.

OC Weekly, have at it.

MICHAEL MILLER is the features editor for Times Community News in Orange County. He can be reached at or (714) 966-4617.

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