Stephen Adly Guirgis likes to scratch at the underbelly of the city that never sleeps, writing plays that move like freight trains through a neon-lit terrain of drifters, hustlers and dreamers.
San Francisco Playhouse has been championing the playwright for years, from "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" and "Den of Thieves" to "Our Lady of 121st Street." Now the company, in association with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, is taking on the play that dare not have its full name printed in a family newspaper, the exuberantly potty-mouthed "The Mother ... With the Hat." This juicy West Coast premiere of Guirgis' Tony-nominated hit runs through March 18.
The bleeps hit the fan in this ferociously funny comedy of bad manners, quick tempers and lost souls. It's a symphony for the inner-city steeped in curses and regrets, but profanity is just a small aspect of the play's provocative power. Guirgis etches all of these desperate characters with such compassion that you know he has spent time in this hardscrabble New York universe.
Jackie (Gabriel Marin) is fresh out of jail and deep in rehab. He used to be a drug dealer, but now he's landed a job as a porter, and he's trying to work a 12-step program. It's not easy, especially because he lives in a squalid studio apartment with his coke-snorting girlfriend, Veronica (Isabelle Ortega). When he brings home flowers, candy bars and lottery tickets to celebrate his new gig, she gets misty, but not in a good way.
These lovebirds have been entwined since eighth grade, but lately, Jackie has begun to suspect that Veronica has been stepping out with the "mother" of the title. She denies it, and she's a live wire who's not usually one for mincing words.
Take the advice she gives her mom about her love life: "Ma? OK, look, for the last time, my opinion, you're still a good-lookin' woman with a huge, lovin' heart and you're not hard to please -- clearly -- but you're dating a (bleep) big-time loser with a head like an actual (bleep) fish!"
Jackie can't shake his fears. He's certain that he smells Aqua Velva, among other things, on the sheets. When he finds a fedora near the bed that isn't his, he explodes with decades of pent-up outrage. Veronica, for her part, reacts with righteous indignation, also vodka-fueled screeds that raise the ante on obscenity so high that the F-word suddenly seems the height of politeness.
Their romance hits the skids, resolutions are tested and bloodshed lurks behind every corner as "Mother" twists and turns for 100 action-packed minutes. Director Bill English keeps the pace so tight and bright that it's easy to overlook the points when the ensemble doesn't quite reach the high-octane levels of intensity the script demands.
Carl Lumbly grounds the nuanced ensemble as Ralph, Jackie's sponsor and lifeline. Ralph is a smooth operator with a slick patter who wants Jackie to break up with Veronica, ostensibly to keep him clean and sober. He begs Jackie to give up weed and booze for yoga and tofu. He seems like a stand-up guy, but truth is a scarce commodity here.
Jackie seeks advice from his bodybuilder cousin Julio (an electric turn by Rudy Guerrero), but he gets emotional whiplash as Julio bops from his touchy-feely side to his "Van Damme" side. Julio seems to embody the only softness there is in this world of hard edges.
Marin and Lumbly, both of whom starred in the company's production of "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train," have a real flair for Guirgis' brand of street poetry. Guerrero steals every scene he is in with a performance that's both gutsy and sincere. Marin nails Jackie's endearing combination of rage and vulnerability. Lumbly finds the little nuggets of authenticity in a character that could easily seem inhumane.
Sex, lies and mind games come fast and hard in this nail-biter, which also stars the always riveting Margo Hall as Ralph's venomous wife, Victoria. She used to value her marriage. Now she's got more chemistry with Ben and Jerry than with her husband.
Betrayals and reversals are the only constants in this volatile world. "Mother" keeps you laughing, but it also keeps you off guard so thoroughly that the piercing poignancy of the finale comes as a complete surprise.
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Through: March 16
Where: San Francisco
Playhouse, 450 Post St.
Running time: 1 hour,
40 minutes (no intermission)
Tickets: $30-$100, 415-677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org