Stephen Adly Guirgis’ comedy-drama “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” begins so explosively in its excellent SF Playhouse production, it’s hard to imagine where it can go from there.
What’s so great about the play, which opened on Broadway in 2011, and about Bill English’s fearless direction, is that it goes to lots of places — places that are at various times violent, comic, profane and poignant.
This is the SF Playhouse’s fourth Guirgis play and it’s just as well-cast and directed as the other three, and just as engrossing. It also has the advantage of English’s expansive, multilevel set in the SF Playhouse’s new, spacious downtown venue.
Things initially seem to be going well for the Puerto Rican couple at the center of the story: Jackie (played with an almost innocent likability by Gabriel Marin) and Veronica (a tough and vulnerable Isabelle Ortega).
True, Veronica’s an addict. True, alcoholic Jackie was recently released from prison after a drug bust. But he’s in AA and just got a job, so things are looking up — until he notices an unfamiliar man’s hat in their apartment and goes into a jealous rage.
Relationships evolve in unexpected ways among all the characters, who include Jackie’s smooth-talking AA sponsor Ralph (a relaxed, charismatic Carl Lumbly), Ralph’s bitter wife, Victoria (a focused and fierce Margo Hall), and Jackie’s oddball cousin Julio (a hilarious, ultimately touching Rudy Guerrero).
The play, at its heart, depicts the volatile nature of friendship and love, the inevitability of betrayal and the human struggle to lead a decent and moral life against all odds. What makes it work so well is that all Guirgis’ characters are multifaceted.
And the SF Playhouse ensemble couldn’t be better at plumbing their depths. Ralph, for example, describes his wife as “the reincarnation of Benito Mussolini,” but Hall knows exactly why Victoria is so angry, and how to connect to the character’s most profound yearnings.
And when Ralph tells Jackie, “I’m an a**hole, bro. So are you,” it rings true, as it does when Julio accuses Jackie of being a self-centered user — and then reminds Jackie how he once rescued the friendless Julio on the playground when they were kids.
“It’s funny how people can be more than one thing, isn’t it?” muses Jackie toward the play’s bittersweet ending.
It is, and the happy combination of Guirgis and the SF Playhouse bring that eternal conundrum to bold theatrical life.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat: Presented by the SF Playhouse
- Where: 450 Post St., S.F.
- When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes March 16
- Tickets: $30 to $70
- Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org