The Motherfucker With The Hat – Moral relativism on the New York streets. (Theatre Review)

Zoe Trilsbach, Troy Harrison (c) Kurt Sneddon

The Motherfucker With The Hat

Workhorse Theatre Company

Darlinghurst theatre 19 September to 19 October

You can buy your tickets here.

Photos by Kurt Sneddon

Moral relativism is one of the oldest conversations between humans since we learnt how to talk to each other. Too often it is used by the emotionally pampered as an excuse to exhibit a “unsympathetic” attitude towards others, a thought-luxury born of those who have rarely had to struggle for anything in their life. For those who have to fight for what the rest of us take for granted, the importance of personal relationships, caring for those you love, or those you need, is an act of mutual survival that ensures a greater chance for longevity. Stephen Adly Guirgis suggests in The Motherfucker With The Hat that morality is a thing to aspire to, that it can pull you out of the gutter and make you want good things for yourself – a very Nietzsche model of the role of morality. As Jackie says when his emotional distress at the discovery of his partners infidelity is challenged by Ralph D’s suggestion that Jackie toughen up and realised the world is every man for himself, “Your – whaddyacallit – your world view? It ain’t mine. And the day it is, that’s the day I shoot myself in the head. I didn’t get clean to live like that.”

Jackie (Troy Harrison) has been a substance abuser his whole life and has worked hard to get clean. The Motherfucker With the Hat opens when Jackie comes home to his partner Veronica (Zoe Trilsbach) his arms laden with the trappings of a dream he is hoping to create in his world – flowers, chocolates, toy bears, perfume etc. Veronica is the love of his life, a woman he’s been seeing since they were kids together in high school.  Jackie has been making promises to Victoria about a glorious future for their whole inebriated life together. Part of that promise to her,  included his getting clean, something she hasn’t done, and neither has her mother. Jackie’s gifts are to celebrate a job he landed, something he sees as essential to their being able to build the dream they have both been working toward.

Troy Harrison (c) Kurt Sneddon

And yet, among all of this planning, dreaming and wishing is the revolting truth of the day-to-day the pair have been living. As Jackie climbs into bed with Veronica, he spots a hat sitting in the room with them, and realises it isn’t his. Enraged, Jackie leaps out of his dream and argues with Veronica from their reality. In that place, morality becomes a bargaining chip, a point of negotiation around justification. There are no established rules to anyone’s relationship, and therefore when people behave in ways that cause their friends and lovers pain, they can justify their actions by pointing out inconsistencies in the other’s behaviour. No one in the world created by Guirgis has carefully thought out their moral position on anything – each is in their own version of response. In the case of Ralph D, Jackie’s rehab sponsor, sobriety has become a religious conviction that, ironically, absolves him of other sins he commits outside of the drugs. He is a good man because he is sober, therefore he can do what he wants. For his wife, her morality is defined by her moral judgements upon her husband. Does he deserve my “sacrifice?” For Jackie’s cousin Julio, morality is defined by a debt he owes Jackie’s mother and a kindness Jackie exhibited toward him when they were children. Yet one of the things that makes The Motherfucker With The Hat such a great play, is that each character who receives the various forms of moral benevolence from the other refuses it, ducking out from under the weight of moral consequences.

This is why The Motherfucker With The Hat is so aptly named. The title itself is a clarion call to accept a certain moral position we are assumed to be uncomfortable with. Like the characters in the play who resist each other’s morality, much fuss was made over the title when the play first opened ensuring a poor season. This is the moral confusion Guirgis wants highlight even as he asks us each to examine the filter through which we judge others. When Jackie picks up a gun to punish The Motherfucker with The Hat, he can only do so by remaining blind to his own similar behaviors and by choosing the wrong man. It’s a strong statement about moral punishment and it’s an equally strong statement about the danger of moral judgement with a suggestion that the staunch nature of a moral position might be a childishness we all have to give up in the world of adults.

Workhorse theatre company bring a vibrant, energetic version of The Motherfucker With the Hat to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company stage. Adam Cook who directed the play at The Tap Gallery last year, does well with the challenge of making such a small, tight wordy piece of theatre work well in the glamorous sprawl of The Darlinghurst Theatre. He has a great team around him and a marvellous cast who fulfil the challenge of their machine gun dialogue with great skill. The Motherfucker with the Hat is a delicate piece of theatre, which seems like a strange statement given its passion for expletives and the sharp edges of the New York street accents that titan clash against each other. But they key to this play is in the performances. If the actor doesn’t have a clear hold on their character, the audience gets lost in the vast spray of dialogue. Cooks cast are all up to the task, bouncing the moral positions each hold off the other characters who act as unwilling sponge and mirror even as they face their own moral uncertainties. The Motherfucker With The Hat is a great production, lots of fun, filled with great wit and taut performances. This is another winner for The Darlinghurst Theatre in 2014.

Zoe Trilsbach, Troy Harrison_3 (c) Kurt Sneddon

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