‘The play that dare not speak its name’

By on June 12, 2019

The cast of EPAC”s latest production includes (left to right) Julian Ruiz, Irving Gonzalez, and Jeremy Patterson. (LNP file photos)


Having the benefit of seeing Bob Checchia’s excellent theatrical work and his commitment to EPAC firsthand over the years, I was worried for him as he made his directorial debut with “The Motherf**ker With the Hat.” Yes, folks, you read that right. The show opened on the Sharadin Bigler stage June 6 to a curious and mixed audience.

Checchia didn’t have the likes of comedian Chris Rock to make appearances on national television to promote his show like Broadway’s director Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) did when the one act play debuted in 2011. Shapiro was set up for success by casting Rock to play alongside Bobby Cannavale — in my opinion one of the most underrated actors alive — in this tale written by Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis. Except, success never completely materialized for this show and beyond the unmarketability of the title, I think there’s a myriad of reasons why.

Meet Veronica (Helene Reeser), a foul-mouthed and big-spirited young woman who manages to snort up a line of cocaine while berating her mother over the phone. She’s happy. She’s even happier when her long-time boyfriend, Jackie (Julian Ruiz), flies into the apartment with news of a new job. Eager to consummate their celebration the act comes to a screeching halt when Jackie discovers a hat, a man’s hat, not his hat, on the bedside table. The scent of another man is everywhere. Eventually, Jackie jumps to the conclusion — rightly so, we learn later — that Veronica is having affairs with another man. And who is this &%$# with the hat?

Jackie, fresh out of prison and not eager to go back, turns to his AA sponsor, Ralph (Jeremy Patterson), for support and guidance. Ralph has a different take on life and uses his AA affiliation to benefit any opinion he may have on any matter. Ralph’s wife, Victoria (Andi Jo Hill), sees through it all and has had enough of him. Ralph can’t really help Jackie who ends up discharging a firearm in the cheater’s apartment, so the fearful ex-con enlists the help of his cousin and comedic relief, Julio (Irving I. Gonzalez). Cousin Julio just wants to eat healthy, be helpful, and get respect. If not, he’s going to go Van Damme on someone!

Fists are thrown about, but not with Julio. It’s Ralph and Jackie who go at it after the real truth comes out.

Kudos to fight choreographer Preston Cuer for imparting cringe-worthy reality upon the tussle between Jackie and Ralph. I literally and uncontrollably turned my head while my eyes were fixed upon the scene. I really thought somebody was going to hurt someone. And, honestly, it’s hard to tell if they did not. Also, big props to Steve Schelling, who went above expectations in creating the stationary, tiered set.

In the end, Ralph is discovered to be the hat’s owner. He goes back to his wife, I think. Jackie goes back to jail. Veronica starts life again without her childhood crush. And, as inconsequentially as the show starts, it stops.

Going beyond the simple statement “this play is not for everyone” for its vulgarity, it’s not for everyone on other levels. I tend to agree with Scott Brown of New York magazine who wrote, “Motherf**ker mainly concerns itself with a lot of big, mordant laughs … yet overall, the play feels jumpy and scant.” Scant being the operative word in my opinion.

I had a hard time connecting with most of the characters (with the exception of Cousin Julio, who is so far off the wall he demands a certain level of creative envisioning to understand and accept) and simply grew tired of their story. To become fully invested in a show, a viewer has to connect with a character — love or hate. About halfway through the show I realized I could care less about Jackie, Veronica, Ralph, or Victoria — and that is no fault of the actors on the stage; I just had no personal connection to fall back on. Nothing in their life resonated with mine. I felt like I was watching a New Jersey reality show and waiting for the next character to get kicked off.

Helene Reeser (standing) gets the drop on Julian Ruiz in EPAC’s most recent production.

The story went nowhere. There was little resolution. The consequences of actions were meaningless. But, my displeasure is rooted solely in my opinion of the play as a story and should not reflect on the efforts of the actors — who performed flawlessly — and members of the crew, including light and sound operators, costumers, and property managers, who helped the play run seamlessly. Other critics have lauded the production.

“The play that dare not speak its name turns out to have a lot to say,” wrote Ben Brantley of The New York Times.

And The Wall Street Journal published a review that said, “Don’t let the stupid title put you off. If you do, you’ll miss one of the best new plays to come to Broadway in ages.”

Well, I don’t think the title is too stupid. Shock value can be fun. I just wished there was more to this story to warrant the attention the title demands.

Michael C. Upton is a freelance writer specializing in arts and leisure. He welcomes comments at somepromcu@gmail.com and facebook.com/SomebodiesProductions.

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