The Motherfucker with the Hat at Steppenwolf Theatre Company | Theater review

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s profane portrait of boozers, users and losers sports fine performances, if fleeting impact.
 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowJimmy Smits and John Ortiz in The Motherfucker with the Hat at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowJohn Ortiz in The Motherfucker with the Hat at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowJohn Ortiz and Sandra Delgado in The Motherfucker with the Hat at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowSandra Delgado in The Motherfucker with the Hat at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowJohn Ortiz and Gary Perez in The Motherfucker with the Hat at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
 (Photograph: Michael Brosilow)
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Photograph: Michael BrosilowSandra Marquez and John Ortiz in The Motherfucker with the Hat at Steppenwolf Theatre Company
By Kris Vire |
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The five characters in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s tough-hearted 2011 comedy are all self-proclaimed addicts: They’re in recovery, out of it or moving between the two states on a minute-by-minute basis. The language of addiction—especially the passages of the 12-step “big book” as wielded by manipulative AA sponsor Ralph D. (Jimmy Smits)—is as vital to Guirgis’s tale of hurt and mistrust as the pungent profanities evinced by the play’s title. Ralph’s “sponsee,” Jackie (John Ortiz), is a former dealer and recent parolee whose own recovery isn’t helped by his toxically romantic relationship with childhood sweetheart Veronica (Sandra Delgado). When Jackie spots an unfamiliar man’s hat in the apartment, he wigs out—but it’s his assumptions about the chapeau’s owner that reveal his own blind spots.

Directed here, as in its Broadway production, by Anna D. Shapiro, Guirgis’s work crests and falls with its characters’ choppy emotions, featuring impressive performances but missing the enduring oomph of such pieces as The Last Days of Judas Iscariot or In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings. Smits, known for his extensive TV work as well as his stage roles, gives Ralph a faux-Zen low thrum that makes it easy to imagine falling for his bullshit, and harder to picture comedian Chris Rock’s wiry electricity in the role (which Rock created in his Broadway acting debut). Ortiz brings a bit too much ambiguity to his jittery Jackie as he moves among the play’s three environments (with impressive clockwork transformations by set designer Todd Rosenthal).

Or maybe that’s the playwright’s doing; we seem to learn more about Jackie’s core from the stories told about him by Veronica, his cousin Julio (Gary Perez, keeping his markedly effeminate character just this side of sitcom distasteful) and Ralph’s deeply depressed wife, Victoria (a sympathetic Sandra Marquez), than we do from Jackie’s own actions. It’s Delgado’s magnetic Veronica who truly impresses, demonstrating why she proves too much temptation for Jackie and more. Long one of our favorite featured actresses, Delgado takes this piece about substance dependents and declares herself its greatest stimulant.

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