The Motherfucker With the Hat By Stephen Adly Guirgis Directed by Serge Seiden; At Studio Theatre to March 10 Kafka on the Shore By Haruki Murakami; Adapted by Frank Galati Directed by Rebecca Holderness; At Spooky Action Theatre to Feb. 24 This foulmouthed play is a motherfucking winner. Also: an occasionally inscrutable but likable Kafka on the Shore.

Hat Trick: An errant ball cap sparks an ex-con’s jealousy.

What the fuck is in a motherfucking name? Despite generally approving reviews and the Broadway debut of Chris Rock, The Motherfucker With the Hat was a commercial disappointment when it premiered in 2011: That motherfucking moniker makes it hard to advertise (though not in this pottymouthed newspaper!). By the time the show was nominated for a motherfuckload of Tony and Drama Desk Awards, it had been closed for nine months. If indeed that automatic-R-rating-earning title, repeated in its poetic entirety throughout the play, kept anyone away from this insightful, hilarious, propulsive, fully captivating taxonomy of human weakness, that’s a low-down, dirty, motherfucking shame. Motherfucker is motherfucking brilliant, and the new Studio Theatre production is performed motherfucking brilliantly.

I’ll stop pouring quarters into the swear jar now, but there’s no denying the hat-wearer playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has dreamed up deserves the Oedipal epithet and then some. He’s manipulative, he’s conniving, he’s selfish, he’s vegan. He’s also, God help us, the clearest-thinking, least-deluded person on this stage, and this infuriating motherf—I mean character, is the single biggest reason Guirgis’ journey-into-hell narrative succeeds in sketching out the human condition so, uh, unconditionally.

Our protagonist Jackie, by contrast—rendered in sympathetic shades of volatility and vulnerability by Drew Cortese—is sincere and likeable and loyal. He’s also impulsive and often willfully stupid. Fresh out on parole, he’s working the 12 steps and returning to his lifelong girlfriend Veronica determined to turn his life around—at least until he plows into the iceberg of that hat, carelessly abandoned on the floor of their shared apartment like a forgotten landmine or Desdemona’s handkerchief. He demands to know who’s been visiting his girl while he’s been locked up. Veronica is as hot-tempered as he is—and a cokehead, too—but she manages some diplomacy while maintaining her innocence.

“I’m willing to put the ghetto on hold and eat some fucking pie with you,” Veronica says, “if you’re willing to entertain the notion you’re a fuckin’ retard ex-con who almost blew it ’cause you got an imagination like Dr. fuckin’ Seuss and shit.” Jackie remains alarmed enough to flee to just where you’d think he should—the apartment of his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Ralph D. (Set designer Debra Booth distinguishes Ralph’s place from Jackie’s by adding a wall-mounted flatscreen TV that pulleys in awkwardly from the wings, and stacked boxes of the “nutritional beverage” Ralph sells.)

Only there are no safe rooms in the emotional labyrinth. Unlike in, say, any number of Neil LaBute’s plays, no one here is supernaturally cruel. These five characters mostly try to do right by one another but end up disappointing and wounding each other anyway. If Guirgis’ dialogue weren’t so blazingly funny, this continual unbundling of agonizing revelations would be, well, Long Day’s Journey Into Night.

In a company that’s operating on an elevated plane, Quentin Mare’s live-and-let-live-man portrayal of the goateed, forever calculating Ralph D. never lets you relax. You wonder if his endless self-justification is the price of his 15 years of sobriety, a chit he can hold over Jackie’s head, and does. Liche Ariza is nearly as good as Jackie’s loyal Cousin Julio—the moral center of the piece, if only because we’re not privy to his confessions. Pledging to cover Jackie’s back in a potentially violent encounter, Julio says, “Van Damme is ready,” adopting the persona of the Belgian film star who’s suffered the same substance-abuse problems that plague at least four of the five characters here. As Ralph D.’s wife Victoria, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey is saddled with the least-developed part. Yet the actress, who won (and deserved) a Helen Hayes Award for her performance as a Marilyn Monroe–like starlet in Theater J’s superb 2011 After the Fall, manages to give it more life than what’s on the page.

Rosal Colon plays Veronica, the woman Ralph D. will tell Jackie is “a wild fuckin’ animal who was raised by wolves in fuckin’ Puerto Rican Transylvania.” Indeed, Veronica and Jackie’s hyperbolic spat in the first scene borders on finger-snapping caricature. But they’re both just frontin’. Colon and Cortese can play quiet as persuasively as they play loud, and their sad duet in the play’s climax will haunt you.

Kafka on the Shore By Haruki Murakami; Adapted by Frank Galati Directed by Rebecca Holderness; At Spooky Action Theatre to Feb. 24

Speaking of motherfuckers, Haruki Murakami’s 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore is to some extent a retelling of Oedipus Rex. Like After the Quake, the mashup of two Murakami short stories that Rorschach Theatre staged with alacrity last fall, Kafka is a multilevel, metaphysical prose fable adapted by Frank Galati into a dreamlike, often obtuse stage play. To speak of it in further declaratives is difficult, except to observe that After the Quake was an hour shorter, and that one is more game to ponder the imponderable when one is not exhausted.

The piece follows two parallel narratives: Teenage boy Kafka (he adopted the name from a pop song; we never know his actual name) runs away from home to search for his biological mother and sister (different women, not a Faye Dunaway-in-Chinatown situation), eventually taking shelter in a small library run by a transgendered woman. At the same time, Nakata—a kind, mentally impaired older guy who as a child had some kind of Marvel Comics paranormal accident that damaged his brain but gave him the power to communicate with cats, like Aquaman, sort of—faces off against a guy named Johnny Walker who… kills cats. And then harvests their souls. From which he plans to construct a giant flute, duh. What else are you gonna do with a pile of cat souls? Sometimes he also eats their hearts. The flute is, I’m assuming, metaphorical, but the cardiac-snacking is literal. By which I mean that I definitely watched actor Steve Beall extract something from inside a plush-toy cat and chew it up. I think it was a cherry tomato.

What’s the matter, don’t you get it? Me neither. Not at all, not one bit, not in a box, not with a fox.

Which is not to say there aren’t things to enjoy in this dream-logic riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a puzzle, dropped into the basement of a church and peopled by an appealing cast. Al Twanmo radiates a humble dignity as Nakata, nicely keyed to the same guileless wonder with which Michael Wong invests his Kafka. As Sakura, a mystery woman who shelters and soothes Kafka, Jennifer Knight has a sultry vocal authority. Dane Figueroa Edidi is a ballerina in blue Blade Runner facepaint and ballet shoes who frequently glides in wielding two fans to offer physical underscoring of the action, such as it is. During one sex scene, the sight of the two lovers is hidden from us—instead, Edidi performs a graceful dance while an actor reads a (prerecorded, I think) passage describing the tender interlude from Murakami’s novel. It’s a nice bit of staging, and a reminder that sometimes we’re better off savoring the surfaces than worrying about What It All Means or How Much Longer It’s Going to Take to Mean It.

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