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Stephen Adly Guirgis’ bleakly hilarious play The Motherfucker with the Hat makes a few things vividly clear. One: Love should be a controlled substance. Two: The word haberdashery is always funny. Three: Every human is a contradiction, even to themselves.
Motherfucker, presented by Washington Ensemble Theatre and running at 12th Avenue Arts, centers on Jackie (Erwin Galan), just out of prison and back in the apartment he shares with his longtime girlfriend, Veronica (Anna Lamadrid). He’s trying to stay clean and sober, get a job and rebuild his life. The trouble is, Veronica is still an addict. When Jackie notices a hat that isn’t his on a table in their bedroom, the shit hits the fan. After his life with Veronica blows up, Jackie bounces from couch to couch, sometimes staying with his cousin Julio (a delightful Moises Castro) and sometimes with his sponsor Ralph D (Ali el-Gasseir), a recovering addict who slings nutritional beverages and self-help phrases and cheats without compunction on his resigned, embittered wife Victoria (a lovely performance by Meg McLynn).
Guirgis doesn’t write straightforward, easy to understand people. Instead he makes the audience work as hard toward understanding these characters as they are working to understand themselves. Jackie struggles to right himself every day but believes that he’s just “a bad guy.” Ralph acts as though his clean living excuses his moral turpitude. Julio tells Jackie that he never liked him but that he always loved him. Veronica clings to moral high ground, even when she’s not sure she deserves it.
Unfortunately, much of the cast just never appears entirely comfortable in their characters—every “you know, like, you know, like” recited by rote, every “a’ight” rendered a smooth triphthong. Despite the efforts of renowned director Valerie Curtis-Newton, the energy in Motherfucker never picks up and this is a play that needs to generate heat. The elaborate set changes between every scene are so smoothly choreographed that at first they’re almost beautiful to watch, but coming between each of the play’s many scenes these extended breaks repeatedly drain the theatre of any tension. As a result, the whole evening feels like its running at three-quarters speed. Jackie and Veronica are people who love each other enough to kill each other; or, at least in Jackie’s case, shoot up an unsuspecting neighbor’s apartment. It’s a desperate, clawing kind of love—the kind that doesn’t go slow. And we have to believe in it if this play is going to land.
Right across the hall on the 12th Avenue Arts mainstage is Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s The Birds, an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same name—which inspired the famous Hitchcock film—by Irish playwright Conor McPherson (The Weir, Shining City) and directed by Greg Carter. Instead of du Maurier’s Cornwall or Hitchcock’s California, McPherson’s adaptation has two people with shattered personal lives, Nat (Shawn Belyea) and Diane (Sarah Harlett), waiting out the avian destruction raining down on humanity in an old New England lake house, gorgeously rendered in warm woods and dark fabrics by scenic designer Tommer Peterson.
They shelter with the door barred, battered from above by a constant barrage of birds with a death wish. Brendan Patrick Hogan’s sound design screeches exquisitely, and without it the story’s entire concept would be ridiculous. When the birds are away—something to do with the tides—Nat and Diane scavenge for food in nearby houses and businesses and build something of an uneasy companionship. It’s a small slice of stability carved out of an unknown whole until a ballsy young woman, Diane (Meme Garcia), shows up and throws off their balance. After some initial wariness and discomfort from the interruption in their ordered routine, the threesome finds its own equilibrium and even, impossibly, a little happiness.
Enter Tierney (Sean Nelson), a one-scene role that is basically just a thought experiment-cum-plot device, delivered to make something happen and give us a big, timely idea to chew on. “I never thought nature would just…eat us,” laments the gun-toting stranger.
The birds keep coming as cracks start to form in the story’s central troika, building tension and distrust in the house to deadly levels. But no matter how well this play is done—and overall, it is done well—it’s not much of a play. The plot is thinly drawn and the fuzzy, narrow point of view that can make a short story so compelling don’t work as well on stage. Characters in a short story can be elemental sketches, smaller means to much greater narrative end. That vagueness—we know so little about these people, and what we know we don’t necessarily trust—leaves the audience feeling deliciously off balance for a time but ultimately renders the piece forgettable, no matter how heavy-handed the exit messaging. “What’s so precious about the human race, anyway?” writes Diane, an author and our not-entirely-reliable narrator, whose journal sometimes serves as voice-over narration. An idea worth lingering over on the page, perhaps, but its intellectual appeal doesn’t translate to the visceral stage.
The Motherfucker with the Hat runs through Feb. 5; The Birds runs through Feb. 20.