Stage review: barebones' 'The Mother' dark, comic and passionate

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Gift-giving has begun early for those who appreciate a contrast with the usual seasonal diet of cute, colorful, sweet and wholesome. How about something sort of cute, definitely colorful, more tart than sweet and not wholesome at all, but, for those who don't find all that a drawback, astonishingly funny?

That's one quick way to describe "The Mother****** with the Hat," Stephen Adly Guirgis' edgy 2011 Broadway comedy, now in its Pittsburgh premiere in the very capable hands of barebones productions.

'The Mother****** With the Hat'
Where: barebones productions at New Hazlett Theater, North Side.
When: Through Dec. 7; 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday (no Thanksgiving performance).
Tickets: $30 in advance, $35 at the door (students $15); or 1-888-718-4253.

It begins with Veronica's phone conversation with her mother that's just like every mother-daughter exchange except that both women are addicts and the language would blister paint, if it weren't funny and poignant, too. Enter, like a hurricane, Jackie, fresh from prison, exploding with testosterone and maybe good intentions.

But just as the two are tumbling explosively into bed, he sees that hat. "Who is the [blankblank] with the hat!" he quite understandably demands, and the game's afoot. I guess you could call the play a comic whodunit or perhaps a whodunwhat, since the hat definitely betokens something's amiss. Pardon my touch of Bardtalk, but this whirlwind of a dark comedy does indeed have passion of Shakespearean intensity.

Jackie's subsequent quest involves his AA sponsor, Ralph; his cousin, Julio, who isn't what you think, unless he is; and Ralph's woman, Victoria, whose passionate, complex feelings catch us by surprise. The play goes hurtling by in about 10 scenes and 100 minutes (no intermission), and how you take it more or less depends on how much you open yourself up to these unexpected characters. You might even make a case for the villain (if that's the word).

For me, the ending has a surprising emotional kick.

Founder and artistic director of barebones, Patrick Jordan, plays Jackie with appealing fury and even more appealing bewilderment. Ruth Gamble is a quasi-tragic spitfire as the seriously conflicted Veronica, and Daina Michelle Griffith (who seems to be in two or three plays simultaneously these days) comes closest to tragedy as Victoria. Edwin Lee Gibson is the self-assured Ralph (the roll played on Broadway by Chris Rock; Gibson is better). We know all these and appreciate their talents. The discovery is Leandro Cano as Cousin Julio, who may enter as comic relief but develops into something more.

Rich Keitel directs with apparent skill, and designer Douglas McDermott provides a revolve that whisks us from one to another of three locations. Richard Parsakian's costumes know this world, and Randy Kovitz' fights are convincingly earnest.

Not all the characters have the sympathetic depth of Jackie, but all dovetail convincingly. After a bracing dose of Mr. Guirgis' play, I think I can now handle a diet of elves and other Christmas cheer. Maybe sad is just sweet by another name.

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