Much of that is brought to emotional fruition by MOTHERF**KER's incredible, engaging cast, each of whom embody their roles with a raw, intelligent truthfulness that surpasses mere line readings. As rich as these characters' words are written already, the actors tasked to personify them make them believably lived-in... Real People with Real Bodies... and Real Grown Folks' Problems.
As Jackie, the stilted, broken man at the center of the play, Sancho is utterly mesmerizing, capably romantic one moment, then gut-wrenchingly pathetic the next. And he can be equally as stirring as a powder keg about to blow up at any second, or as a vulnerable lost puppy, desperate for a bone. An emotional roller-coaster of a character, Sancho easily elicits fear, pity, disgust, sympathy, and even camaraderie from the audience -- all within the span of the show.
Ralph D., Jackie's "trusty" companion in recovery, is played with voracious vigor by Bates, who, I must mention, was also a standout in last year's SCR production of TOPDOG/UNDERDOG. Here, the impressive Bates -- whose commanding voice sounds eerily like Samuel L. Jackson's circa Pulp Fiction, especially when espousing fiery speeches at his ex-con charge -- portrays both sides of Ralph D.'s personality with great panache: the charismatic leader and jovial pal... and the Grade-AA douche-bag this man really is. His scenes with the equally impressive Frias, who plays his unsatisfied wife Victoria, is a study in palpable tension and bitter surrender.
As Veronica, Jackie's girlfriend, Bocanegra is also a fascinating standout. Her enthralling, no-holds-barred, flaws-and-all portrait of this damaged character is truly awards-worthy, and her scenes with Sancho are just exceptional. Together, the actors convey a deep, romantic entanglement that seems very real and passionate as it is inevitably doomed to failure. And finally, as Jackie's cousin Julio, Barillas' funny and touching portrait of this uncompromising, self-assured pillar of strength and sass will no doubt handily endear him as an audience favorite. No wonder then that during the show's press performance, this gifted comic was the only actor awarded with a round of spontaneous applause when he exited a scene. Bravo!
Completely engrossing from start to finish, this profanity-laced urban drama-dy is, to be honest, an edgy pleasant surprise to see in an Orange County theater, especially in a major regional theater such as SCR. Don't let the play's, uh, colorful title (censored herewith, of course) sway you from seeing a truly top-notch show. Beyond the dinginess and profanity that's de rigueur of its slice of urban life, THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT is simply a gripping play that crackles with a nervous, uneasy energy -- and that is easily one of the most provocative offerings this Tony Award-winning regional theater has mounted in its long history.
And while I tend to agree with the notion that "vulgarity is no substitute for wit" -- a phrase I procured from Maggie Smith's character Dowager Countess Grantham on the brilliant TV series Downton Abbey -- I must say that in the case of this hilarious play, vulgarity absolutely punctuates the wit.
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Photos by Henry DiRocco/SCR. From top: Jackie (Tony Sancho) discovers a rogue hat; Julio (Christian Barillas) has a heart-to-heart with his cousin Jackie; Ralph D. (Larry Bates) interrogates Veronica (Elisa Bocanegra); Victoria (Cristina Frias) is shown the fist.
Performances of THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT continue at South Coast Repertory through January 27. Tickets, priced from $20 to $70, can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa.