If there’s one place that does patter as well as Glasgow, it’s New York. For that reason, The Motherf**cker with the Hat, full of creative swearing and inventive bon mots, has found its ideal second home here. In fact, with appropriate amendments, this tale of drink and drug fuelled infidelity and self-realisation could be relocated to the side of the Clyde.
But in this form, it’s New York through and through and boy, does it swing. It has inherited its home-town’s vibrancy and easy style.
The main protagonist is recovering alcoholic and convicted drug dealer, Jackie (Francois Pandolfo), who after discovering some stray men’s headwear in his flat, suspects his coke fiend girlfriend, Veronica (Alexandria Riley) of cheating on him (with the incestuous titfer-owner of the title). Frantic, he leans on his AA sponsor, Ralph (Jermaine Dominique) and his wife Victoria (Renee Williams) for support, and then has to ask his cousin Julio (Kyle Lima) for cover when he gets a gun and takes matters into his own hands. The drama plays out in their three respective apartments, represented by a split level stage. Jazz interludes between scenes are a nice touch.
Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play is confident in itself, enough so that it can portray such low, dirty shenanigans without resorting to being self-consciously gritty or worse still, tackling “issues”. A certain breed of British writer would not have been able to help applauding themselves for how real they were keeping it. “This one’s about inequality and addiction caused by failed neo-liberalism.” Here, at least to a non-New Yorker, it has none of that baggage. It simply presents ordinary people going about their messy lives without bludgeoning us with a wider context we’re supposed to take on board.
It’s also a masterclass in naturalistic dialogue. The script is superb, exhibiting real flashes of wit and blessing each character with appropriate idiosyncrasies, as well as real-life proportionate sweariness and sexual vulgarity. It’s a little churlish to wish for more, because the cast make such a decent fist of it, but it would really soar with five native New Yorkers who can truly nail the cadences of the speech (Renee Williams is the sole American). Imagine how slightly unsatisfying the reverse scenario would be.
Characterisation is excellent. One can imagine future theatre-makers asking for a “Jackie” or a “Julio”-type character. The five are well spaced on the spectrum of human personalities, and rub up against each other in believable ways. The Jackie-Ralph scenes in particular capture a male friendship dynamic that shakily straddles loyalty and rivalry. “Anybody you meet before the age of, say, 25? That’s your friend. Anyone after that? That’s just an associate.”
Dominique, as Ralph, is perhaps the pick of the bunch. He goes up and down the gears very smoothly. In friendship and in anger, we witness both his charisma and the clinical detachment that enabled him to beat the demon drink. Both, it turns out, are doubled edged swords. Pandolfo plays Jackie as a wee scrote, albeit one whose inner decency is trying to win out. We have less time to get to know their partners, but both women pull off key scenes very well – Williams, with a wounded grace, Riley with an assertive veneer that covers deeper uncertainty. Kyle Lima as Julio gets the bulk of the play’s comic moments and acquits himself well. Some might bridle at the funny camp guy as a stereotype but we’re not talking John Inman here. Julio has depth – conflicted, betrayed, gentle, protective, loyal, wise. He’s the one you’d give a spin-off series to.
The show’s first out-of-London venture and the theatre’s first co-production with Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre can therefore be chalked up a success. They’ve been handed some exquisite writing and simply let it do its thing. It’s a rare and welcome pleasure these days to be leaving the theatre mulling over the characters, and not a take-away “message”.