Thursday, September 27, 2012

The slick and the raw at SpeakEasy Stage

Can you hear me now?  Trying to communicate in The Motherfucker with the Hat. Photos by Craig Bailey.
A kind of identity crisis has been creeping up on SpeakEasy Stage for some time now.  For years their brand as Boston's stylish, de-politicized gay theatre worked for them like a charm; indeed, SpeakEasy's smooth mix of "urban" New York hits and the occasional gay-ish musical gradually made them perhaps our most popular mid-size company.  SpeakEasy's goal was clearly to be the theatre you could take a date to (gay or straight) - and they met that goal reliably; you knew you'd never be embarrassed by a SpeakEasy show.

Now that's no small feat, and maybe it's identity enough; but slowly local politics caught up with the company's okay-we're-gay-we-go-to-Starbucks-too stance, and then seemed to pass it by - SpeakEasy looks conservative now, so the slight "edge" the theatre once had has crumbled.  Sure, the print critics kept swooning (for them, when it comes to edge, less is more), but the smarter theatre folks in town began to talk of SpeakEasy as not just smooth but slick; and a strange sense of datedness seemed to cling to their AIDS dramas and tongue-in-cheek revues.

But then I get the impression the company's brain trust must have begun to think the very same thing; for this season they have clearly attempted to swap the slick for the raw - or at least the Hollywood idea of "raw."  The first experiment in this new positioning is Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherfucker with the Hat, which didn't quite succeed on Broadway last year, but is now making the regional rounds as if it had.  Okay, it hardly failed - it squeezed out a little over 100 performances, and the girls at the Times were indulgent; but most other critics decided that "it signifies not fucking much" (as the Village Voice bluntly put it), and the weakness of Chris Rock's central performance was widely seen as somewhat compromising the box office his stunt casting had been calculated to bring in.

Still, judging from its current incarnation at the Roberts Studio, Motherfucker was carefully, and successfully, constructed to please a crowd - at least the crowd that still reads the Phoenix (if that still exists, that is), so you could argue that with it SpeakEasy will successfully extend their brand a bit.  And even if the script is obviously thin, there are some scathingly funny monologues, and several flashes of hot naked flesh, so what's not to like?

Don't look now, dude, but some motherfucker left his hat!
And to be fair, I did kind of like it - kind of; or rather I found it - I don't know, intermittently diverting, I suppose?  Still, as the Voice put it, it doesn't amount to much, and its Tinseltown "rawness" grows cloying (not for nothing was it backed by gay Hollywood honcho Scott Rudin - who no doubt recognized it as un-filmed Ty Burr bait).  The script does have one truly great idea - the plot briefly coalesces around an intriguing twist in the addiction/recovery racket. If only Stephen Adly Guirgis had realized what he had in this and developed it!  But he didn't, so he drops the meme (and the dramatic ball), and the script grinds on in a more predictable, episodic groove (watching it is a bit like watching a full DVD of some "gritty" cable series).

Not that the script wasn't heavily developed - it was, and how; as I mentioned in an earlier post, Guirgis has said that he worked on this text with a team of actors for some three years.  Thus it's almost a case study in what development can do, and what it can't.  And what development can do is produce a top-notch actors' showcase  - most everybody in Motherfucker gets a big, show-boating rant, and a deep, soul-searching moment, too (sometimes you almost feel there should be a spotlight moving from actor to actor as they launch their respective numbers).

But what development can't do is, well, develop anything; so it's no surprise that in Motherfucker we watch helplessly as the playwright's best ideas drift off into a welter of sitcommish structures and laugh-track rhythms.  But then the bottom line is that the whole play hangs on a relationship we simply don't buy - we're supposed to believe that the doomed romance between the addicted Veronica (Evelyn Howe) and the recovering Jackie (Jaime Carrillo)  is not only hot, but viable - and it patently isn't.  In fact Guirgis doesn't even bother to give it any individual color or texture; he knows it's a generic set-up, a "love" that exists only to be destroyed by Jackie's jealousy once he notices the eponymous hat left in Veronica's flat by that unknown motherfucker.

From then on, we're supposed to pity them as we would star-crossed lovers in a pop song, I suppose, even as we marvel at the harsh, amoral world they inhabit (nobody has a moral compass, you see!) - that is when we're not howling at their effing  outrageousness! (I know, it's corny as hell, but hey, that's showbiz.)  As I said, Guirgis does unveil one fresh insight amid all this recycled guff - it turns out his slumming addicts are on a higher moral plane than the twelve-step gurus who guilt or guide them into sobriety; those going cold turkey, Guirgis points out, often turn to mind games and worse for their jollies - like Jackie's life coach "Ralph D." (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), whose idea of the straight and narrow proves twisted, and shockingly two-faced.  And of course, Guirgis reminds us, even if you've beaten your addictions, you can still be a loser! This clear-eyed cynicism is bracing - and we begin to hope the playwright will tease it into a conflict between Jaime and Veronica (which by rights should be the core of the play).   But Guirgis seems unable to hang onto his own originality; indeed, he can't even really keep a bead on any sense of rising action, and so by the finale things aren't so much raw as maudlin.

Another go-for-broke face-off in Motherfucker, just like the marketing guy wanted.

Still, there is some fine acting to be found in this showcase.  Certainly Maurice Parent and Melinda Lopez (as Ralph D.'s long-suffering wife) turn in galvanizing performances that are sure to be remembered come awards-time.  Meanwhile Evelyn Howe's Veronica, though generic, is still heartfelt, and Alejandro Simoes almost puts over the artificially-constructed gay-bi-straight sidekick schtick of "Cousin Julio."  But alas, at the center of the production there's something of a void - word has it that on Broadway, Bobby Cannavale brought a deepening despair to the lead role that pulled Guirgis's disconnected scenes into some sense of downward spiral; but the likable Jaime Carrillo finds no such plunging arc; he's simply over his head, both as character and actor.

Part of this, however, may be the fault of director David R. Gammons.  You can count on two things in a Gammons production - the visuals will be striking, and the lead performance will be misdirected.  The Motherfucker with the Hat carries on this storied tradition: Eric Levenson's scenic design is intriguingly conceptual (we seem to be in some sort of rehearsal space, with "MOTHERFUCKER" scrawled across it - an apt enough comment on the play's genesis!), but once again Gammons' star, like the stars of his Medea, Red, and Blackbird, has clearly been misdirected - or just not directed.  Oh, well!  The formula seems to work for Mr. Gammons - he gets no end of work, so I'm sure we can look for another iteration of his production model shortly.  In the meantime, my hat is off to Lopez and especially Parent for the memorable mojo they bring to this mofo.

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