Two Talking Plays: SpeakEasy’s “Motherfucker with the Hat” and the Huntington’s “Good People”

by Bryce Lambert on September 26, 2012

If there are two hot tickets in Boston right now, they’re SpeakEasy’s The Motherfucker with the Hat and the Huntington’s Good People. That said, I think SpeakEasy’s show is vastly superior in just about every way that matters, particularly in how it balances its comedy with its seriousness. But really these plays are a lot alike and since they’re both young and come by way of New York, it feels like we’re in the middle of a trend in playwriting, production, and audience appeal.

I’m calling these shows talking plays because their narratives are really just vehicles for monologues that convey (melo-)drama and one-liners there to lighten the load of that drama. The settings of Good People are mostly places where people sit and talk; kitchen tables, bingo games, and a meeting with the boss at work. SpeakEasy’s show, centered largely around former addicts trying to live in sobriety, comes out of a culture of talk; the meetings, confessions, apologies, and storytelling of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In these two productions, the talk is well-written and spoken and keeps to natural rhythm and diction and, thankfully, it rarely reverts to the stale, overwrought, and over-thought “theatrical” dialogue symptomatic of many new plays. But action is minimal. Good People is mostly about a woman talking about looking for a job and going to a party she really doesn’t belong at. The Motherfucker with the Hat takes us along the emotional course of a relationship, but most of what happens, happens because back-story is revealed: narratively, when that back story is revealed to the characters, and dramatically, when that back story is revealed to us.

speakeasy the motherfucker with the hat

Jaime Carrillo, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, and Alejandro Simoes in SpeakEasy’s “The Motherfucker with the Hat” (Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

What’s most noticeably absent in all of this is character development. Or perhaps it’s there, it’s just “development” in the truest sense of the word–an unwrapping of that which has been previously concealed. The characters of these plays are static figures, who don’t change across a narrative arc, but are rather altered in how they’re perceived by an audience through bits of back-story the playwright pulls from his sleeve. It’s all so we can go “Ohhhhhhhhh, so those are his true colors.” This feels a little cheap, like the device of a mediocre TV writer looking for the easiest way to woo an audience.

Is this all bad? Not at all. For The Motherfucker with the Hat, I think it works. The characters are strong and well acted, particularly Maurice Parent as Ralph, the manipulative and bromantic AA sponsor of our protagonist, and Alejandro Simoes as Cousin Julio, his fey and protective cousin. Playwright Stephen Guirgis has a knack for introducing characters as light comic relief, then making them real by slowly incorporating them into the drama: a shrewish wife becomes a victim of infidelity, a homosexual caricature becomes an endearing friend and protector, and a bible-quoting AA sponsor becomes a kind of wolf in sheep’s clothing. All this transformation is accomplished by revealing back-story, sometimes through elongated monologues (that start to get a little tedious towards the end), that move perceptions and dramatic alliances around.

Much of the drama of this play about love, relationships, infidelity, and sobriety comes down to misunderstandings where characters lack the information to properly understand each other, and perhaps the will as well. In the audience, we’re very much in the same position, as our perceptions are shifted and toyed with. What’s clever, at least in concept, is that Guirgis lets every one of his characters take a shot at figuring one another out, reducing them to a character-attacking monologue. I’m under the impression that we’re supposed to walk away having learned a lesson along the lines of “people are more than one thing.” A little soft and trifling, yes, but the play ends on soft and elegant, tear-jerking note that I can’t help but be a sucker for.

With Boston’s inferiority complex, it’s no surprise everyone goes nuts for anything having to do with the city. The Huntington’s current production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, with its Southie setting, is no exception. While I appreciate the play’s specks of authenticity–the talk of dental work and credit card debt and dollar stores–I’m having a hard time getting excited over it. The cast is solid, but the comedy is stale, lacking in wit and the foul-mouthed raucousness that makes SpeakEasy’s production so great. Although the play “gets” Southie at some level, many of the lines are tame enough for network sitcoms. You might hear better ones just hanging out at a bar, which raises an interesting point. Both of these plays depend on an anthropological angle; the comi-drama of the way other people, basically poorer people (at least compared to those probably at the theater), live. Both playwrights have done well here, endowing their characters with enough warmth and humanity to avoid condescension. Well, except for two significant, but ancillary characters in Good People, who are really just there to drop jokes.

Nancy E. Carroll, Karen MacDonald, and Johanna Day in the Huntington’s “Good People” (T. Charles Erickson)

Good People starts simply enough; Margie (Johanna Day) loses her job at the dollar store and tries to find a new one by looking up her old high school boyfriend Mike (Michael Laurence), who’s now a successful and wealthy doctor. He kind of invites her to a party, where she plans to ask his well to do friends if they have anything for her. And here the play shifts into murkier territory, where a huge portion of it is just talk about Margie going to this party. With the whole story hinging on such a simple action, the play is almost like something minimalist squeezed into a traditionally scripted shell.

I won’t give away the rather ambiguous ending, but it turns out Margie, and maybe the whole neighborhood of Southie, has their secrets. And Margie’s garrulousness with Mike is really just a way to push his buttons, drawing out bits of back-story from their childhoods together, and showing us a different man than we thought we met. And eventually, she pushes those buttons so hard, that a whole other Mike is revealed–just as we eventually saw Ralph in SpeakEasy’s production in the light of his indiscretions.

Good People dishes out its political message with a heavy hand. It would be hard to miss its counter-argument against conservative doctrines of choice and will and getting what you deserve in a free market. Of course, this is less a political argument, than a choir-preaching fictional confirmation, there to please the folks who already agree with Lindsay-Abaire. There are some interesting little components and parallels, but they clearly aren’t what Good People is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be funny and compelling, but it just didn’t reach me like The Motherfucker did.

1 Bob October 10, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Thanks for the rec, MFer w the hat was great! Like your taste, can’t wait to see the next thing with a good review.

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