Believe it or not, writing reviews for Camp is not my full-time job, which means I don’t always keep track of everything going on in the professional theatre world. So when I was told that the season-opener for the Unicorn Theatre was titled The Motherf**ker With the Hat, I had never heard of it. I thought that with a name like that, it’s probably a foul-mouthed farce.
But executive director Cynthia Levin wouldn’t have her esteemed venue produce a work (just) because it’s a foul-mouthed farce. So I was curious. With a little research, I discovered that yes, it is a comedy with plenty of strong language. But more than that, the show was on Broadway and it was even nominated for a Tony for Best Play in 2011. So I wondered: Could a play that became known partly for its profanity also have deeper layers to it?
The answer to that question turns out to be “Hell, yes.”
The Motherf**ker With the Hat, which runs through Sept. 30, tells the story of Jackie (played by Darren Kennedy) and Veronica (Vanessa Severo), two lifelong Brooklyn residents who have been together since the eighth grade. Jackie is a recovering alcoholic recently released from prison, and Veronica is a full-blown addict. When Jackie comes home and finds another man’s hat on the kitchen table, their volatile relationship explodes. Jackie seeks assistance from his AA sponsor, Ralph (played by Rufus Burns), and his eccentric cousin Julio (Francisco “Pancho” Villegas) while he struggles with what his next actions should be.
It should be known right up front that this play contains more profanity than any other show I can think of. If that bothers you, then it might be a deal-breaker. But this is Brooklyn we’re talking about – these people are not known for polite conversation. And the profanity quickly becomes part of the way the story is woven together – crude and rough and right on the money. It really doesn’t seem gratuitous. This is the way these characters would actually talk.
Despite the simple, common premise of the show, it’s a thoughtful, layered tragi-comedy. The characters slam into each other in the verbal equivalent of a particle accelerator, and the pieces go flying. In this way, their attitudes toward relationships, addiction and morality are exposed.
Severo and Kennedy are well-matched as the lead characters. Kennedy is totally believable as Jackie, the under-educated loser trying to stand up to his past, and Severo’s Veronica is the perfect counterbalance – the hot mess with no real ambition of her own.
Burns makes some interesting choices as Ralph, Jackie’s sponsor – at first I thought he was overplaying his role. But as the show progressed, I began to understand Ralph’s over-the-top zeal to help Jackie. He ended up being one of my favorite parts of the play.
Villegas and Meredith Wolfe, who plays Ralph’s wife, each have smaller roles, but they are crucial to the emotional progress of the main characters, and they do a great job.
In the end, The Motherf**ker With the Hat is a look at different moral approaches to life. Some try to do right because it’s the right thing to do. For others, nothing really matters in the end, and our choices in this world are all relative. These approaches make a world of difference when people are making decisions about issues of relationships, addiction, and recovery.
The Motherf**ker With the Hat may be too abrasive for audience members with virgin ears. But if you take the language as an integral part of the story and not let it be a distraction, you will be well-rewarded with a thoughtfully raucous portrait of real life.
For tickets, go to www.unicorntheatre.org, call 816-531-PLAY (7529), ext. 10, or visit the box office at 3828 Main St., Kansas City, Mo.