The nice thing about hitting rock bottom in life is that once the cartoon birds stop flying around your head from the fall, every step up out of the muck is a milestone. Witness the ragamuffin poster girl for diminished expectations in the musical My Fair Lady, Eliza Dolittle, who chirped “All I want is a room somewhere” — just some coal-fired warmth, some chocolate to eat, some ease. But that was the Edwardian era. What about much less chirpy present?
The face of down and out hasn’t changed a whole lot. The poor and luckless may still wind up in prison, but today, the aftermath of despair plays out with a weighty supporting cast — case managers and parole officers and AA sponsors. “One day at a time” is the main thoroughfare out of Rocky Flats where the road ahead remains a poorly-lighted, uncertain gamble. PURE Theatre’s latest offering The Motherfucker with the Hat is their high octane, tragicomic answer to the principal question: “What happens after I get out of rehab?”
If you’re Jackie (Michael Smallwood), what happens is you get out of the joint, get sober, and surprise your long-term girlfriend Veronica (Liza Dye) by landing a job. Veronica is still a user herself but in Jackie’s eyes, she’s his anchor. Jackie’s AA sponsor, the vitamin-enriched Ralph D. (David Mandel) sees it differently. Perched behind his nutritionally virtuous smoothie, Ralph considers Veronica less of an anchor in Jackie’s life than an undertow.
Turns out, rock bottom has a secondary effect. It clears the field. Whoever is still standing with you in this tight spot is a friend indeed, right? Jackie has Veronica but he also has Cousin Julio (Eric Doucette), one of the most colorful characters ever to rock an eye-popping aqua tracksuit. Seriously.
And then there’s Ralph D’s spouse Victoria (Tara Denton) who first manifests in the play as an off-stage, unprintable response to Ralph’s request for some lunch. Wisely, Ralph shrugs it off. “Acceptance,” Ralph tells Jackie. “That’s the key.”
Motherfucker revels in focusing its audience on language. And while the overarching mood may be comic, the cast gives us much more than splendid one-liners. Denton delivers the prickly and long-suffering Victoria as a wise-cracking portrait in forbearance and heart-broken dignity, even though her dialogue might have drawn us to a very different, shrewish evaluation. Dye’s Veronica is not just hedonistically foul-mouthed, she’s poetic in her profanity. The play’s first scene relies on her to be just about incandescent. She is. And this provides the fuel Smallwood’s character needs to light the way forward. Smallwood gives his Jackie street cred props in full, all the while building up from a foundation of passion and integrity that’s pivotal to the sticky moral questions playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis invites us to confront. Those questions principally adhere to Ralph D., a character Mandel renders so convincingly that even while you’re rooting for him to realize sobriety alone doesn’t cut it, you’ll want to throttle him in the second act. But that task is best left to Doucette’s Julio, who in the play’s most richly gut-busting scene brings home the comedic lottery, demonstrating that he’s all over this fight and giving the truly hilarious caricature that is Julio a vivid humanity.
One of the great pleasures of this production is that it feels like there are many more than just five cast members. Director Gus Smythe gets every last ounce of energy and realism out of his very talented cast without allowing any one character to walk away with the whole show. It’s a delicate balance which seems to have been achieved through the recognition that there’s something juicy for every actor in this play. The result is a calibrated, truly ensemble performance that’s sparking on all cylinders while keeping a roaring pace. This is one show that really needs that intermission just so everyone — cast and audience — can catch their breath. Consider it unmissable.