By JONATHAN MANDELL
More complicated than telling people the name of The Motherf**ker With The Hat is describing the set, especially what happens between the first and second scenes: A bed slaps up, a wall materializes, a sofa flips up from under the floor, and a turntable spins. After a few seconds of this busy mechanical movement, one couple's seedy hotel room has transformed into another couple's living room.
"We wanted the set to be like street poetry---the fluidity of the changes, the turbulence--- and we didn’t want it to distract from the street poetry of the play," says Todd Rosenthal, the production's scenic designer. A darkly comic drama by Stephen Adly Guirgis, The Motherf**ker With The Hat focuses on Jackie, a former drug dealer and ex-addict recently released from prison, and his long-time girlfriend Veronica, who is still an addict but has a steady job in a salon. As the play begins, Jackie is ready to marry Veronica, but when sees another man’s hat on the table, he suspects that Veronica has been cheating.
The Motherf**ker With The Hat is Rosenthal's second Broadway show, after 2007's August: Osage County, and for the second time, he has been nominated for a Tony Award for Best Scenic Design of a Play. (He won the Tony for August.)
You could say that both of his Broadway designs are a result of his acceptance 21 years ago into the Yale School of Drama. Had the school rejected him, he says, he would have become something else, "probably an architect." It was at Yale that Rosenthal met Anna D. Shapiro, who was in the directing program and went on to direct both August and Hat. "We’ve been working together ever since," he says---one or two shows each year since 1995.
For August: Osage County, the pair tackled a house inhabited by a large, miserable family. "We kind of broke it apart: We wanted it to look more like a dollhouse," Rosenthal says, adding that the result had "the whimsy of a dollhouse with the weight of the Gothic."
The design for The Motherf**ker With The Hat also takes a literal environment and breaks it apart to convey a feeling (A model of the set is pictured above.) Rosenthal began with an idea: "I wanted it to be a very intimate space in an operatic landscape," he says. "Everybody in the play aspires to be something else. There was a sense that there was more out there---lofty goals."
That is why there is a relatively small playing area downstage that changes into each of the three different apartments of the five characters, while the backdrop is always the same---the back of a huge, abandoned billboard at one side of the stage, the staircase inside a tenement building at the other side, and in-between, a sliver of sky that offers a glimpse of an old skyscraper.
"Initially, we had a whole billboard up there, but we started ripping things off of it," Rosenthal says. "If you look at it and don’t know that it’s a billboard, I don’t really care.
It’s more engaging to let the audience fill in the blanks." All the audience need know is that "it is a large, metal, urban-looking object that’s hovering above the characters. The world that surrounds them is almost like a ruin. They feel alone in this large landscape."
The whirring and whirling during the scene changes are meant to emphasize that the characters are not on stable ground. But there is another reason Rosenthal thought up these contraptions: They're cool.
"We didn’t want the play just to be about sh**ty people living in a sh**ty environment," he says. "We wanted the set to aspire, just like the characters do."
Jonathan Mandell is a critic and journalist covering theatre for such publications as The Faster Times , Back Stage and American Theatre. He is on Twitter as @NewYorkTheater
Photo of Rosenthal's set design model provided by the artist.