Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Play That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Posted by Bruce Miller
My daughter, Hannah, and I went to New York last week. She just completed her sophomore year at W & M, and this was our annual father/daughter bonding trip. Other dads and daughts do Indian Princesses and the like, with camping trips and wilderness excursions. We've always tended to seek our adventures in Shubert Alley, up and down the aisles of The Drama Book Shop, and all around Central Park.

We Amtraked up on Thursday morning--all aboard at 6:50 a.m.--arriving at Penn Station sometime around two. In the glory days of Jet Blue's non-stop flights from Richmond into Kennedy, we usually flew. Now flying costs about $300 more for the two of us than training, so ... Amtrak it is.

Since we planned in advance, we were able to book a room at the Edison, which is our favorite hotel in the theatre district. Nothing fancy, but affordable, quiet, clean, and--if you're drunk on the schmell of the theatre--ideally situated. The only downside is that you have to connect a month or more in advance to find a vacancy.

We saw six shows in four days: one on Thursday evening, one on Friday evening, two on Saturday and two on Sunday. We traveled home on Monday. The only show we bought in advance (paying full price, no less) was The Book of Mormon. We bought those "hot" tickets for Sunday evening, because time is tight between Sunday's 3 p.m. matinee and 7 p.m. evening performance--often too tight to return to the ticket line.

Other than Mormon, we bought all our tickets 50% off at the TKTS booth in Times Square. At this time of year, when tickets are selling pretty well, the TKTS booth is cheaper than the web discounts we could have obtained in advance at With Broadway prices hovering around $120 for a non-musical, who can afford to pay full price?

The show we saw on Thursday night was The Motherf**ker with the Hat, by Stephen Adly Guirgis. I list the title here the way it is listed on the marquee of the Schoenfeld Theatre and the cover of Playbill. Guirgis is the playwright who penned The Last Days of Judas Iscariot (co-produced in Richmond earlier this season by Henley Street and Triangle) and Jesus Hopped the "A" Train (produced a few years back in the Theatre Gym at Theatre IV). I wanted to see Hat because I'd read good reviews, and because Guirgis is among my favorite contemporary American playwrights.

Even after summoning all my NYC sophistication, I felt a little funny saying the title out loud at the TKTS booth. I also felt nervous encouraging my 20-year-old daughter to come see this play with me. But once we were seated in the theatre and the lights came up, any and all discomfort went away.

Don't get me wrong--the language spoken and shouted from onstage is just as pungent as the title would lead one to expect. Guirgis writes, beautifully, in the vernacular of the bottom-of-the-food-chain working class poor whom we too often dismiss as having little of importance to say. What becomes immediately obvious in the theatre is that we dismiss their (his) wisdom at our own peril.

Hat tells the story of five striving, 20- and 30-something individuals, each of whom tackles his or her own loves and demons with varying success. No character has the one right answer; there are no heroes or villains. Front and center, Guirgis places the higher powers, the memories, the intoxicants, the instincts, the will power, the sense of family, the health foods and, most importantly, the commitments (or lack thereof) we rely on when everything else lets us down.

Hat is about the healing and destructive powers of language. It is about the presence and absence of soul.

Of the six plays we saw, Hat is one of the two I LOVED. Bobby Cannavale, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Yul Vazquez (three actors from Off Broadway's Labyrinth Theater Company) are brilliant, and well deserve their Tony nominations. Chris Rock and Annabella Sciorra add the TV star appeal that Broadway requires, and they're good--just not great when viewed side-by-side with their theatre-savvy co-stars.

The set by Todd Rosenthal is a Rubik's cube wonder that rotates, twists, turns and pops to create three different interiors that are all interconnected even when we can't figure out how.

The play is howlingly funny and, even more to my taste, genuinely filled with scorching emotion and hard-earned truth. Hat enables us to see the dignity in "broken," marginalized individuals who otherwise may never "earn" our attention. It gives the lie to that American platitude that "all men are created equal," shining a revealing light on the inequalities that define our nation's "non-existent" class structure.

Hannah liked Hat a lot, but with somewhat less enthusiasm than I did. The following night we saw the play that both of us deemed "best in show." More soon.

--Bruce Miller

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