In God's Hat
Written by Richard Taylor
Directed by Kevin Kittle
It's cowboys versus inmates on the fringe of American civilization. From the opening's prison gate pickup to the finale's headlight-illuminated desert burial, very little about Richard Taylor's In God's Hat
(through August 7) feels original, at least not in the broad strokes. The dialogue is pleasantly Mamet
-ian, if not downright Coenesque
in its morbid and often very funny vulgarity. The setting suggests Sam Shepard
: a moldy motel on a highway in some nameless section of the American West that nobody comes through unless on their way to or from said prison. Here, just-released child molester Mitch (Rhett Rossi) and his tight-lipped, cowboy-ish brother Roy (Tom Pelphrey) hole up after not speaking throughout the former's 10 year term. Barely back on speaking terms, they're interrupted by another recently released inmate, Arthur (Dennis Flanagan), a neo-Nazi hoping to finish his botched cell block murder of Mitch.
Taylor's dark comedy drives at the brothers' reconciliation, a process that often seems inevitable despite potentially deadly interferences by Arthur and, later, his similarly minded friend from "the brotherhood" Early (Gary Francis Hope). Male identity and more or less hollow myths of masculine power are the most self-evident subtexts to the four men's disputes—there are no female characters and only one woman, Mitch and Roy's late mother, is ever discussed at any length. However, these matters are often raised haphazardly rather than developed in any substantial or imaginative manner, highlighted with humor (Roy: "Men should always live within five miles of beer.") or made literal with self-conscious clarity, as when Mitch directs his brother, "You're conflicted, Roy." Oh.
More intriguing, partly because it taps into the superb tension sustained as Arthur and Early in turn prowl the terrified brothers' room, is the play's intense crisis of faith. The two skinheads are devout Christians in the most horrifying of ways. Mitch and Roy, meanwhile, believe in nothing except maybe each other, and then only very tentatively. Each articulates a near nihilistic view at various points, like when Mitch first sees Arthur approaching their motel door and mutters breathlessly, "Jesus Christ that man looks like the spittin' image of evil," to which his brother responds with disinterested terseness, "Don't we all." The absurd rottenness of human existence here becomes practically Beckett-ian at times, particularly as Mitch, deliriously encouraging his own live burial, nearly re-enacts a passage from Happy Days
Sadly that last scene, intended as the play's great emotional payoff, is ruined by being staged directly at the feet of the front row of audience members, making it all but impossible to watch for everyone else. This and other clumsy directorial decisions like detrimentally heavy-handed lighting tricks work against the completely exceptional cast. Rossi pulls all types of ticks and jitters from his acting hat as the skittish, hunched and haggard Mitch. When he finally emerges from shell shock with triumphant zeal as he narrates his fictional beheading of the father who was the root cause of the family's problems, the moment is irresistible: "And then I threw his head in the recycling!" Hope and Flanagan both leverage a perfect terror coated in creepily charming paternalism (Early, with stone-faced earnestness: "I don't watch cartoons; I find the violence gratuitous."), twisting the rules of hospitality to overstay their welcomes and get under everyone's skin. Soap opera star Pelphry
seethes under his stoic demeanor as the handsome and silent John Wayne type fraying at his brittle edges. Though there's nothing magical to In God's Hat
—Taylor's unswerving faith in realism, in fact, hinders any wider resonance—its excellent performers and gut-twisting tension are hardly old hat.
(Photo credit: Dale Jabagat)