Every Schmuck Has His Hat

    Thankfully, every now and then there comes an exception.

    Case in point: “A Man, His Wife and His Hat.” One of the more buzzed-about productions of this year’s Baldwin New Play Festival, the play centers on a treacherous love triangle among man, woman and inanimate accessory. (And with a bipolar golem made of garbage and a talk- ing, omnipotent “wall of truth,” the comedy clearly set its sights on lovable oddity from the get-go.)

    But where so many others have struggled to find substance in the cute or bizarre, “A Man, His Wife and His Hat” employs an endearing cast and surprisingly cohesive script to produce the feel-good absurdist hit of the year.

    Narrated by the aforementioned talking wall, the play unravels the story of cranky, recliner- bound Hetchman (Daniel Rubiano), a retired hat maker who lives with his unhappy wife (Natalie Birriel). When his wife and beloved hat both go miss- ing, Hetchman enlists the help of his happy-go-lucky neighbor Meckel (Matt MacNelly) and an impulsive cellar-dwelling golem (Kyle Sorensen) to track them down, rekindling his love for his long-ignored wife in the process.

    First and foremost, the play is damn funny — and not lukewarm, drama geek funny. Playwright Lauren Yee’s script is brim- ming with earnest laughs, delivering a steady stream of priceless moments from beginning to end. Hetchman’s love letter to his missing hat begins: “Dear Hat, if you are reading this … Hey! You can read!” Later, during the play’s penultimate epiphany scene, a now-domesticated golem slams a keg of Heineken during a grave- yard séance.

    But despite the sheer insanity, “A Man” remains focused. The creative staff — made up entirely of MFA students — exude expert resourcefulness under the constraints of a low-budget production. The sets are cozy and minimal, rarely venturing outside Hetchman’s clut- tered apartment. A meager cast of six (seven, including the wall) carries the dense, experimental plot single- handedly. Yet thanks to the boundless talent of the actors and director Joshua Brody, the play never loses its audience.

    The real star, however, is Yee. While the award-winning script is not without its inventive flourishes (Hetchman’s television plays a documentary about his wife’s growing dissat- isfaction, the golem roots through the basement to uncover dusty jars contain- ing memories), Yee’s scope is limited to a few fundamental themes (namely, love and the importance of reciprocating it).

    The finale, which could just as easily have collapsed under the weight of the play’s delightful irrational- ity, manages to navigate heartfelt sincerity without compromising the script’s intelligence. As Hetchman becomes aware of his love for his wife, he frantically recites an impromptu list of evidence that they are in love, including some sincere, if slightly off-putting proclamations: “I say I have to fart when I have to fart” and “I hold your purse when you use the toilet.” The sentiments echo Yee’s script: sweet, but never disarmingly so, and always unshakably honest. (A-).

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