Live Arts takes off with Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat

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Live Arts launches its season on October 11 with The Motherfucker with the Hat (starring LtoR: LaTrina Candia, Ike Anderson, Andy Zylstra). When prompted about his success, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis said, “What else is the job of a writer, of directors and actors, but to create an experience that is satisfying?” Live Arts launches its season on October 11 with The Motherfucker with the Hat (starring LtoR: LaTrina Candia, Ike Anderson, Andy Zylstra). When prompted about his success, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis said, “What else is the job of a writer, of directors and actors, but to create an experience that is satisfying?”

When Stephen Adly Guirgis wrote The Motherfucker with the Hat, he didn’t overthink the f-bomb. “It just felt like the right title,” he told me in a recent interview. “I also thought the play was going to be performed in my company’s 99-seat theater.”

Not quite.

While Guirgis prepared the show at LABrynth, the West Village theater company where he is a member and co-artistic director, producer Scott Rudin (The Book of Mormon) found a copy of the script. “I didn’t take him seriously,” Guirgis said, “but then he was like ‘Look, I want to do this on Broadway.’”

In 2011, the original cast members from LABrynth were joined by director Anna Shapiro (August: Osage County) and comedian Chris Rock, who auditioned for a supporting role though he’d never performed on Broadway before.

So what happens when a smart, funny script written for a small house goes huge? “We just pretended that we were downtown,” Guirgis said. “It’s like that scene in Hoosiers where he measures the basketball goal. The stage was the same dimensions, you know? It’s the same thing as in the Village, except if people don’t like it everyone is going to know about it.”

Fortunately that wasn’t the case. The show went on to earn six Tony nominations and mixed critical success, though most reviewers seemed to agree with The Wall Street Journal: “Don’t let the stupid title put you off. If you do, you’ll miss one of the best new plays to come to Broadway in ages.”

Live Arts is betting that Charlottesville will love it too. The first show of its 2013-14 season, Motherfucker tells the story of a former drug dealer, Jackie, who leaves prison for a job, a 12-step program, and an apartment with the (coke-addicted) love of his life. When he finds a man’s hat—not his own—in the bedroom, Jackie ricochets between his cousin, his AA sponsor, and the bottom of a bottle on his way to a new normal.

“It’s a viewpoint we don’t often get to explore,” Live Arts’ Artistic Director Julie Hamberg said of the season opener. “It made me laugh out loud when I first read it. Then I found it a deep play about what we’ll do for love, wrapped up in some gritty farce of the here and now. I could not resist.“

When I asked him about community productions of his work, Guirgis’ voice warmed, rounded by his New York accent. “That’s the coolest part of my job,” he said. “If I’m lucky, I write a play at my kitchen table in the middle of the night, and eventually people from all different parts of the country get together and have an experience, that’s hopefully positive, doing a play that I wrote.”

Certainly Guirgis knows how to do his job. In a world of TiVo and Netflix, his works, which include Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and Our Lady of 121st Street (both performed by Live Arts in the early ’00s), are known for bringing non-theater types into the theater. During Motherfucker’s Broadway run he said, “our audience kind of looked like the morning rush hour in the city.”

The script’s appeal includes a tightly wound plot, crackling humor, and characters whose conflicts we recognize. “You know how St. Paul said ‘When I became a man I put away childish things’? My plays tend to be about people who should have put away their childish things, who are trying, and either succeeding or failing to do that.”

What personal references does Guirgis bring to the script? “The heart and soul of the play is Jackie trying to look in the mirror and come to terms with his shit,” Guirgis said. “Can he move on to some next level beyond his perennial childhood? Every day I feel like I’m still living in that.”

Several years ago, experiences with infidelity revealed to Guirgis a truth he’s still trying to express through his art: “That the morality of a child, while flawed, is different than the morality of an adult. When we were kids, we always had each other’s back. We had a code of behavior that revolved around loyalty to a tribe. When we’re older it’s a different story. The tribe isn’t always available or accessible and sometimes we can do fucked up things. I think everybody is trying to find the way to live that feels good to them, that balances being able to take care of themselves and taking care of other people.”

Authentic tension helps Guirgis write in his signature spitfire style. “The thing I love about language of the street is that it’s good for drama,” he said. “You don’t have a lot of time to mince words. People tend to be very direct. You aren’t in a living room. But it can still be very poetic and pleasing, at least to my ear.”

Guirgis does with dialogue what professional ballerinas do with their toes: make years of study, rigor, and near-perfect execution look simple, even easy. Earlier this year, he won a Windham-Campbell Literature Prize for drama, and the committee at Yale described him as a writer “whose linguistic bravado reinvigorates the American vernacular.”

And what of that colorful vernacular that some audience members find offensive? “This show is for those who like their theater fast, funny, and hot but do not fear the real,” Hamberg said. “If it were a film it would probably be rated R.” Ike Anderson, who plays Jackie in the Live Arts production, put it simply: “If you can’t handle the title, chances are, you can’t handle this show.”

Guirgis concurred. If audiences of The Motherfucker with the Hat are offended by colorful language, they should consider themselves warned. “The title is my disclaimer,” he told me.

On the phone I nodded and asked, “So what are your feelings on hats?”

“I like hats, but I have a big head,” Guirgis said. “Most hats don’t fit me. Whenever I find a hat that fits me, I usually buy it, but then I don’t wear it.” He paused like a man on the brink of self-awareness. “If I wear a hat that actually fits it looks like a garbage pail. I guess I’m not a hat guy.”

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