The San Francisco Playhouse has a long history with the work of New York playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, especially considering that the company's only 10 years old. It's already staged his plays Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, and Den of Thieves. So the Playhouse is a natural home for the West Coast premiere of Guirgis' dark comedy The MF with the Hat, which premiered on Broadway in 2011 starring Bobby Cannavale and Chris Rock. The play was also in the news later that same year, when Guirgis objected vociferously and publicly to white actors being cast in the Puerto Rican roles in its first regional production, at TheaterWorks in Hartford, Connecticut (not to be confused with our own TheatreWorks in Palo Alto).
The title doesn't actually use "MF" but rather a popular insult implying incest, one that I've tried to be mindful to substitute with "fluffernutter" in everyday conversation. And indeed, there's a veritable fluffload of profanity in the show. That's only appropriate, because it's about a former small-time drug dealer who's now clean, on parole, and jubilant about having just got a job until he notices an unfamiliar hat in his girlfriend's bedroom and a suspicious scent on the sheets. That's when he flips the heck out and resolves to track down the titular gentleman.
The West Coast premiere is presented in association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, the previous occupant of SF Playhouse's new space. Currently homeless, LHT is offering a nomadic subscription season made up entirely of other companies' productions at the Playhouse, American Conservatory Theater, and Marin Theatre Company.
Playhouse artistic director Bill English gives the play a brisk, high-octane staging. English also designed a knockout set that takes full advantage of the spaciousness of the new stage. LHT had already reduced the former Post Street Theatre's seating from 729 to 400, and the Playhouse further reduced it to an intimate 250 seats by moving the stage forward, which lends the set a remarkable sense of depth.
Two interiors of implausibly roomy New York apartments sit side-by-side: one a funky woman's bedroom with Christmas lights strung above the bed, the other a tasteful, sparsely furnished living room with color photos of fresh vegetables on the walls. Three dimensional brick apartment buildings loom above, one with a patio bedecked with potted plants.
Gabriel Marin is volatile but sympathetic as the hapless protagonist Jackie, who's more naive than he has any right to be, and who's convinced he's just an innocent victim of circumstance even though he's clearly the one messing up. Though she's appropriately vague as the only unreformed drug user in the play, Isabelle Ortega is flat and affectless as Jackie's hotheaded girlfriend Veronica, despite the fact that she has some of the best lines and the foulest mouth of the bunch (which is saying something).
Carl Lumbly, a Berkeley-based actor best known as a cast member of TV series such as Alias and Cagney and Lacey, has had several transfixing star turns at SF Playhouse, starting with Guirgis' Jesus Hopped. Here he's equal parts laughable and magnetic as Ralph, Jackie's smooth-talking 12-step sponsor who loves his middle-class life and wants Jackie to embrace yoga and health food too. His long, eloquent pep talks have a bluntness and peculiarity that's hilarious, and they're delivered with commanding intensity. Margo Hall is a delight as Ralph's fed-up wife, Victoria, who glares at him and shoots him down every time he tries to charm her. Rudy Guerrero is priceless as Jackie's cheery cousin Julio, seemingly stereotypically gay but happily married to a woman, and willing to help cousin Jackie stay out of trouble by any means necessary.
Guirgis' dialogue is rapid-fire and crackling throughout, more than making up for the wispiness of the plot and a couple of scenes that drag on too long. (There's no intermission, but the show runs about two hours.) There's a fair amount of violence too, though it's not gratuitous; in fact by the time it happens it would be stranger if it didn't. There are no good guys here, just people who make elaborate excuses for their behavior or don't care enough to try, and the women in particular take no guff from anybody. It's safe to say you'll never hear anyone in this play say a word like "guff," though, when something harder will do.
The MF with the Hat runs through March 16, 2013 at the San Francisco Playhouse in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit sfplayhouse.org.
All photos: Jessica Palopoli.