Some of the best arguments in American drama are drug-fueled.
Picture George and Martha, blind drunk, stinging each other like caged scorpions in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Think of Bobby Gould and Charlie Fox, locked in a cocaine-addled battle of wits in David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow.”
Remember that young couple you hurried past on Chippewa as you made your way to your car, screaming at the tops of their lungs about sexual transgressions real or imagined.
To this unstable cast of familiar characters, we can now add Jackie and Veronica, the volatile couple at the center of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ explosive 2011 play “The (expletive) With the Hat.” This foul-mouthed five-hander opened Friday night in the Road Less Traveled Theatre in a production nearly as addictive as the substances its characters seek.
Victoria Perez’ crack at the 90-minute one-act, featuring an energetic and appealing young cast led by Anthony Alcocer, is about as close to a contact high as you’re likely to find this theater season. It charges ahead on the strength of its characters’ volatility, and from the first vibrating scene, you’re powerless to look away.
Guirgis, whose more reflective play “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” was the highlight of the company’s 2010-11 season, is a playwright of uncommon emotional intelligence. His ear is attuned to the language of the New York City streets like Shakespeare’s was attuned to the language of Elizabethan England.
These two talents find an ideal challenge in these streetwise characters, who deploy the baroque insults and rhythmic language of the barrio to shield their deep insecurities and failings.
When the lights go up, we meet Veronica (Melinda Capeles-Rowe) in the middle of a rapid-fire conversation with her mother about the latter’s new boyfriend, of whom she disapproves. Veronica pauses her tirade only to do a quick line on the coke-dusted coffee table, after which she resumes with renewed vigor. If the exchange, beautifully handled by Capeles-Row, were played on network TV, it would be one long bleep.
Soon, Jackie appears like a beam of sunshine unaware it is about to run into a cloud. He’s a recent parolee getting his life back together, newly employed and harboring big dreams about a future for himself and the girl he has dated, on and off, since the eighth grade.
Those dreams slip out of reach the moment Jackie sees an unfamiliar object perched on the back of a kitchen chair: A hat. From an unknown male visitor. With whom Veronica has been sleeping.
The rest of the play is one big fireworks display, with Alcocer lighting most of the fuses.
We’re soon sucked into the strange orbit of Jackie’s AA sponsor Ralph, played with suave detachment by Greg Howze against the even more detached performance of Ralph’s long-suffering wife Victoria (Rosa Fernandez). Guirgis throws us a curveball by introducing Jackie’s effete cousin Julio (the hilarious Roland Martín Gómez), whose own miniature personal psychodrama plays out against the backdrop of Jackie’s narcissistic quest for self-fulfillment.
Alcocer, who has grown tremendously as an actor over the past few seasons, is the throbbing heart of this production. He delivers a confident performance that quick-shifts between broad physical comedy and affecting pathos without wearing out the transmission. Alcocer is attuned to the canine character of Jackie, whose jealousy at one point leads him to sniff around his entire apartment for olfactory evidence of infidelity. But he’s just as convincing when called upon to drop the physical and linguistic shield, opening a window straight into Jackie’s aching desire to rise above his station and take his true love with him.
That’s a battle he’s bound to lose, and it becomes harder and harder to watch him lose it. It helps that comic relief is everywhere, from Howze’s deadpan-laden portrayal of Ralph to Gómez’ wacky if sometimes overdone take on a wacky if sometimes overwritten character.
There was some hesitance and uncertainty in almost every performance on opening night, sure to resolve -- according to standard Buffalo theater practice -- with a few more run-throughs.
Though several scenes drag on for a few too many pages and sometimes force characters to talk in circles, they are almost all redeemed by Guirgis’ streetwise, rat-a-tat exchanges. One of the only examples quotable in a family newspaper:
“You know, I’m thinking about leaving my wife,” Ralph says on his way out of Veronica’s apartment after another unsatisfying infidelity. “Good,” she responds, with icy detachment. “Think about it more on your way out.”
Beneath the bluster and the profanity, the play contains a stark message about the difficulty of overcoming personal demons and rising above personal circumstances. The lives of Guirgis’ characters may be frustrated and they may not get what they want. But they drop plenty of poetry along the way, and when this cast is at its best, it makes that poetry sing.
"The (Expletive) With the Hat," a one-act drama by Stephen Adly Guirgis, runs through April 2 in Road Less Traveled Theatre, 500 Pearl St. Tickets are $20 to $35. Call 629-3069 or visit roadlesstraveledproducitons.org.