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Sara Linares and John Wilson Bennett in The Motherf***er with the Hat.

Image: Frank Atura 

Let’s get this out of the way first thing: Yes, if you go see a play titled The Motherf***with the Hat, you can expect a lot—a lot—of strong language to be uttered in the course of the evening. Got it?

OK, now let’s move on the subjects of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play, now onstage in an FSU/Asolo Conservatory production in the Cook Theatre. By subjects I mean the characters—five of them, four of them at least in various stages of dealing with addiction.

The first we meet, in her low-rent New York apartment, is Veronica (Sara Linares), a tough-talking Puerto Rican chica on the phone with her mother about her just-out-of-prison boyfriend Jackie (John Wilson Bennett). Jackie bursts in, full of news about getting a job, as he’s trying to turn his life around, and the two seem happy as can be—until the fanatically jealous Jackie spots a man’s hat atop the apartment’s coat rack. Immediately, he starts to question Veronica, who gives as good as she gets in their profanity-laced battle.

When in trouble, Jackie turns to his sponsor, Ralph D (Lawrence James), who seems at first glance a decent sort of guy, albeit with a wife, Victoria (DeAnna Wright), who’s mad at him and struggling with her own recovery. But as we switch back and forth between three apartments on Chris McVicker’s set (the other belonging to Jackie’s very fit and styling cousin Julio, played by Matthew Kresch), we learn that the relationships here are more complicated than might seem at first. And as tensions escalate, there’s an ugly scene of physical violence (well choreographed by Mark Rose) that brings matters to a head—literally.

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Lawrence James and Matthew Kresch

Image: Frank Atura

If it sounds grim, it’s not, really, it’s just darkly comedic, with the cast all coming out swinging as they deliver Guirgis’ streams of anger/hurt/suspicion. The playwright’s gift for stringing together four-letter words to provoke and entertain reminded me of the now classic movie A Christmas Story, where an older Ralphie recalls how his father “worked in profanity the way other artists might work in oils or clay.” Some viewers might wonder if the play couldn’t have been done without all the expletives, and the answer here is no—this is the way these people live, breathe and speak, and it would be phony otherwise.

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DeAnna Wright and Lawrence James

Image: Frank Atura

Celine Rosenthal’s direction keeps her cast firmly on course, with no lulls in the action and the ability to switch rapidly from one emotion to another. The second-year conservatory actors are all impressive in their timing and versatility, spitting out some of Guirgis’ funniest lines with verve, and Sofia Gonzalez’s costumes add a bit of spice to the mix. These are damaged people, but in their own ways, they are trying to make the best of things.

The Motherf***er with the Hat continues through Jan. 21; for tickets, call 351-8000 or go to asolorep.org.

 

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