The Mothef**ker With The Hat
Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Until March 17
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2011 play The Motherf**ker With The Hat is typical of a genre that is prominent in contemporary theatre in the US and the UK. The kind of drama I always think of as “soap opera with a twist”, it combines curse-inflected street language with drugs, booze, violence and intense personal crises. In fact, whether the authors of such plays know it or not, their work seems closer to the melodramatic, Brazilian telenovela than it is to American or British naturalism.
Played out on designer Kenny Miller’s three-level set (representing a trio of very distinct domestic abodes) the piece centres on recently released convicted drug dealer Jackie as he attempts to get a job and a reputation as a model of rehabilitation. That’s no easy task when his girlfriend Veronica is a coke addict and his parole counsellor (and seeming best friend) Ralph D (famously played by comedian and actor Chris Rock when the drama premiered on Broadway) is a cynical shyster.
It seems that all that stands between Jackie and self-destruction is the advice of his Puerto Rican cousin Julio (a somewhat camp, caricatured health and fitness fanatic with a Jean-Claude Van Damme fixation). Matters are further complicated for Jackie by the attentions of Ralph D’s neglected wife Victoria.
Needless to say, this entire, messed-up matrix of human relations appears like a dangerously teetering house of cards. It only takes the careless abandonment of a piece of headgear, followed by Jackie’s hot-headed presumption that his titular, hat-wearing neighbour is having an affair with Veronica, to set off a chain of events that will bring the entire, unstable structure down on everyone’s heads.
There is something dishearteningly predictable about both the subject matter and the structure of Guirgis’s play. That said, there are aspects in the writing and in the acting of this production, directed by Andy Arnold for the Tron and the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, that lifts it above most stagings of such plays.
In the midst of a generally impressive cast, Alexandria Riley plays Veronica with a motormouthed bravado that functions as a thin veneer for her desperate vulnerability and lack of direction. Kyle Lima’s Julio is the production’s comic safety valve, and he plays his cartoonish-but-unique character with the necessary combination of absurdity and self-assertiveness.
In the midst of the chaos and occasional comedy, beneath the garish social realism, the play has a surprising, emotive undertow belied by its attention-seeking title. On a more sober, less commercially-inclined day, Guirgis might have entitled his play simply Loneliness, so agonisingly unreliable are the relations between all of his characters.
One senses the drama’s debt to TV and cinematic realism, which distinguishes it from the more intrinsically theatrical stage works of American writers such as David Mamet and John Patrick Shanley (in whose company director Arnold’s programme notes flatteringly places Guirgis). Written with an undeniable, stylish fluidity, the play is a strong example of an inevitably limited genre.
From a slice of American life to a work of Scots-Asian comic-realism at the Oran Mor, home to both the ever-popular lunchtime theatre A Play, A Pie And A Pint and the worst seating of any theatre venue in Scotland (when will they replace the horribly shoogly chairs?). The playwriting debut of Taqi Nazeer, better known as an actor (and graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), Rishta is a light-hearted, yet heartfelt, consideration of arranged marriage within the Scots-Asian Muslim community.
In many ways the piece feels like an introduction to the tradition for people from outside of the community. It also seems to function as an in-joke for those in the younger generation of Scots-Asian Muslims who are, to varying degrees, sceptical about the social conventions of their parents and grandparents.
The play is the story of Zahra (Mandy Bhari) and Niyal (played valiantly, script in hand, on Wednesday by Atta Yaqub, replacing Nazeer, who had, sadly, suffered a family bereavement). Brought together in a “rishta” (proposed marriage) arranged by their parents, their reticence, as Zahra’s gay friend Bally (played by Paul Chaal) knows, is down to more than more than just doubts about tradition.
The ensuing drama is, in many ways, a promising debut from Nazeer. His strongest suit is comedy. The play is sprinkled with nicely written jokes, be it the stock phrases used by the “rishta aunties” who set themselves up as the community’s matchmakers or Niyal’s naming a duck in the local park “Kashmir”, because two other ducks fight over her.
There is, however, a sense that the writer has tried to fit too much into a 50-minute piece. Any one of its numerous issues (from arranged marriage, to mixed-race relationships, interfaith love affairs and homosexuality within Scots-Muslim communities) could make a full-length play of its own, let alone a lunchtime mini-drama.
Almost inevitably, given its being so heavily loaded with weighty subjects, this short play seems a tad schematic at times. Similarly, the non-comic dialogue often feels a bit laboured.
The piece was written as part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Breakthrough Writers scheme. One wonders how much mentoring Nazeer was offered as part of that project.
The next step for the young writer, surely, is to allow his talent for comedy to breathe in a less issue-laden work of theatre.
The current season of A Play, A Pie And A Pint runs until June 2. For full details, visit: oran-mor.co.uk
These reviews were originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 11, 2018
© Mark Brown