Unafraid of pushing limits, the Unicorn has begun its 2012–13 season with a production whose title can't be spoken. The Motherf**ker With the Hat, a dialogue eruption that etches a bare-all portrait of criminals, addicts and wannabes, is hilarious and raw and riveting.
Stephen Adly Guirgis' play ran on Broadway and picked up a Tony Award nomination for best play of 2011. For good reason: From the first graphic utterances (this would be gripping stuff even on the page), his dialogue transports us into the lives and loves of five characters struggling to survive — legally, financially, emotionally. At the Unicorn, director Sidonie Garrett draws explosive, touching performances from a solid cast.
As the play begins, recent parolee and sober 12-stepper Jackie (Darren Kennedy, fully inhabiting the character in an outstanding performance) has just landed a job. His natural high at this new chance in life with his longtime girlfriend, Veronica, is a nearly manic elation that we recognize as the kind of joy that might be unfounded, that might not last. For one thing, the wired Veronica (made manifest by an excellent Vanessa Severo), has a history that disappoints. She's a drug addict. But she's also vulnerable underneath her veneer.
Jackie's sponsor is Ralph D. (played well by Rufus Burns, last seen as Bob Marley in The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge), whose own brand of perseverance comes from a more cynical place. His wife, Victoria (Meredith Wolfe, recently in the KC Fringe Festival's Ice Cream Social ... Issues and 4Play and doing good work here), has come to know a cynicism of her own. Jackie's cousin Julio (an effective Francisco Javier Villegas) stands ready to keep Jackie on the straight.
At the margins of society, all five are struggling to take hold and to hold on — to love, to responsibility, to opportunity. But their issues and their aspirations tend to come into conflict.
The play takes place in three apartments (set design by Jason Coale) — Jackie and Veronica's, Ralph D. and Victoria's, and Julio's — in a series of scenes without an intermission. Though the play runs about an hour and 40 minutes, it never drags. It shifts in mood but not in energy. Guirgis' dialogue is so fleet that trying to keep track of its high points turns you into a stenographer; it's also so specific to the play's needs that quoting even its most amusing barbs doesn't do justice to the work. The lines hit hard from the start and never let up. (One force driving the plot is suspicion. Just who is said motherfucker with said hat?)
The story, of course, is more than its words alone. People use talk to deceive or disclose, to elude or elucidate, and no amount of it can fully expose someone's inner experience. With his perfectly titled drama, Guirgis uses his characters' words — gales of words — to reveal them. These ex-cons and addicts and strivers show themselves by the way they employ language, and the actors display a powerfully subtle balance between their characters' charged words and their internal feelings, between their bravado and their hopes and fears.
And there's that search for the titular motherfucker with the hat, which, in its resolution, brings both despair and understanding, setbacks and possibilities.