Lanny Nagler photo

Lanny Nagler photo

Motherfucker With the Hat

Through Dec. 2, TheaterWorks, 233 Pearl St., (860) 527-7838,

TheaterWorks aspires to be Hartford's edgiest professional theater company. They've extended their claim to the title with this production of the play that cannot be named, but that won five Tony nominations last year. The Hartford production is something of a coup for the little theater, as it's the first production anywhere in the country since the show closed on Broadway in July.

Urban but not urbane, Stephen Adly Guirgis's Motherfucker With the Hat is a fraught contemporary love story hiding inside expletive-driven dialogue. It is also very, very funny. Jackie, played with a weird brand of bad-boy charm by Ben Cole, is an ex-con trying to kick the bottle and please his cocaine-addicted girlfriend Veronica (Clea Aslip). He's been in love with her since 8th grade. They have their patterns — hot sex, betrayal, and aggressive verbal pyrotechnics — which he's trying to alter, selectively. They also have their rituals: making up at the local pie shop, which has, he says, a "kind of sanctity to it" and where the unspoken rule is "when it's pie, don't lie."

For help, Jackie depends — unfortunately — on his AA sponsor Ralph (Royce Johnson). Slick and sleazy, Ralph took up yoga and nutritional drinks and surfing after quitting drinking 15 years ago. His wife Victoria (Vanessa Wasche) is on to him and is in mourning for her own choices. The final character, Cousin Julio (Varín Ayala), is both ridiculous and admirable: he values family and relationship in a way no other character does. He also cooks as a way of caring for people, works as a massage therapist specializing in Brazilian waxes for men, and moonlights as a notary public. Most of the characters are supposed to be Puerto Rican; not all are fully credible.

Donald Eastman's gritty blank set features a row of doors along one wall and a large opening on the other side. Director Tazewell Thompson punches up the pace with lightning-fast changes of scenery, choreographed for the actors and a few stage hands. Action shifts from one downscale apartment to another in seconds flat. I was struck by the way this nods to the conventions of French bedroom farce — though with an urban spin that is contemporary and dark rather than pink and frothy.

It's still all about who's bopping whom and when and where and how. Only now a lot of the talk is explicit, not left to innuendo. And the comedy arises from the expletive-driven attempts of characters to come up with metaphors to describe the desperation of their lives rather than the silliness of barely missed meetings alternating with chance encounters. Lovers are compared to fish, to Benito Mussolini, and — in my favorite lines of the night — Godzilla, chomping down daily on sensitive parts of the male anatomy.

The show runs nearly a full two hours without intermission. It includes full adult nudity (male) and lengthy scenes performed in scanty clothing (female). There's also one scene of extended violence — tough to pull off credibly in TheaterWorks' intimate space. All the characters speak in extended bursts of inspired vulgarity, where salacious, vicious expletives stack up into crazy skyscrapers that topple into one another, in a linguistic domino effect that lays waste to social norms but provides an eloquence born of excess. The theater's management says they won't admit anyone under 16; good call. But I did laugh. A lot.