Who is the motherf**ker with the hat? That's what Jackie, the unfortunate hero of Red Stitch's latest production, needs to know.
Jackie is a young ex-con, shacked up with long-time girlfriend Veronica in New York. At the start of the play he's riding high; he's now sober with the help of his AA sponsor, Ralf, and has just gotten himself a job. But the appearance of a mysterious hat in his apartment is enough to trigger a chain of events which changes everything.
If the play has one overriding theme, it's loyalty: who we owe it to, who to withhold it from, and when to recognise its limits. Relationships with family and so-called friends are held up for scrutiny; from Jackie's complex connection with Ralf to his bond with his daggy cousin Julio. But it's the romantic relationships which are the most convincing: playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has a talent for capturing sexual chemistry and power-play, not to mention a good ear for a witty obscenity.
The female characters take home many of the best lines, particularly the prolix, foul-mouthed Veronica. She might have 'impulse-control problems' as Ralf complains, but even though she only stops cursing in order to snort cocaine you can't help but warm to her tough-talking persona.
And yet, The The Motherf**ker in The Hat never fully capitalises on its strong dialogue and characterisation to deliver something of substance. There's a pervasive moral ambivalence to the proceedings, which could be interesting in its own right, if it wasn't delivered so, well, ambivalently. Late in the show, a revealing conversation between Ralf and Jackie feels like an attempt to label the events with some life lessons. But ultimately the play feels confused about what's at stake; as the five characters alternately embrace, reject and betray each other we might find the interactions on stage believable, but after a while we're not sure why we're being shown them.
This lack of intentionality is reflected in some aspects of the staging, including laborious scene changes and 'time and location' title cards at the beginning of each scene. Occasionally these also give irrelevant details describing the setting. This slows down an already overlong show (it clocks in at around two hours) and begs Chekhov's oft-quoted adage about hanging a gun on the wall of a set: if it's not going to go off then just don't put it in. It's a message that Guirgis could have dwelt on more generally to craft a tighter script.
Despite these misgivings, it is a pleasure to see so much acting talent, and spend time with charismatic characters. Performances are strong all round; Michelle Vergara Moore is stunning as Veronica, Demetrios Sirilas oozes impulsiveness and sensitivity as Jackie, and manipulative sponsor Ralf and his bitter wife Victoria are also brilliant. The play might not add up to a coherent whole, but the parts are promising.