with the Hat
It hurts to be human
|Steppenwolf Theatre presents|
|The Motherf**ker with the Hat|
Review by Lawrence Bommer
When partners doubt the dreams that make them love, a marriage turns messy—and the stirred-up stuff can congeal into jealousy. For too many doomed couples, well, that’s all she wrote. The beauty of this typically gritty, Tony-nominated tour de theatre by Stephen Adly Guirgis (author of Our Lady of 121st Street and Jesus Hopped The A Train) is he doesn’t give in and neither do his five characters. Despite an ironic and bittersweet ending, The Motherf**cker with the Hat rises above the demons it invokes, enough to lift the folks who watch it. (Disregard the provocative title, which cleverly treats a red-herring character as if he were central to the story.)
Seemingly tabloid-sleazy (except that these New Yorkers are on nobody’s A list), the situation couldn’t be starker or simpler (or, given how anger dumbs down its victims, stupider). An ex-con in recovery who wants to make good, Jackie (passion-panicked John Ortiz) is crazy in love with Veronica (Sandra Delgado, playing every nuance of neediness), his impatient help(less)mate. Hard-boiled and foul-mouthed, this moody hairdresser is an addict too, meaning she’ll take a short-term fix over any long-term cure—a failing that applies to sex as much as to drugs. Jackie’s green-eyed monster is triggered when he sees a stranger’s hat in their living room, assumes the worst, and crazily fires a bullet into the hat (rather than its owner) which ricochets into the next apartment.
Jackie remains hypocritically enraged—just like any other two-timing husband. (Earlier he had shtupped an A.A. counselor because she was there.) He turns for help to his gay cousin Julio (Gary Perez, hilariously macho in his defense of a relative he doesn’t really like) and to his yoga-loving A.A. sponsor Ralph D. (film star Jimmy Smits in a complex role that he both exploits and explores). Meanwhile, Ralph’s wife Victoria (Sandra Marquez) resigns herself to always being caught in the crossfire.
Sadly, Jackie (who holds to a “code” of honor that doesn’t quite fit the messiness of being human) is oblivious to the real betrayal in his love life. Like so many monsters of envy, he foolishly fears that he can be replaced by a simple act of infidelity, as if all the love he shared is negated by some sex that happened while he was in jail. Watching Jackie wise up to the pointlessness of vengeance and the treacherous temptations that addicts can’t resist, you see the survivor wisdom behind Guirgis’ often blood-curdling trash talk and splenetic gallows’ humor. Self-help, he argues in every clash he dramatizes, is not enough. Other people help us heal as much as hurt. It’s the least they can do, considering…
The taut 100-minute staging, another triumph from the reliably realistic Anna D. Shapiro, misses none of this drama’s redemptive complexities. As in Steppenwolf’s recent, superb Good People (see review), this terrible swift sword of a script keeps shifting sympathies, which is just another word for compassion.
Guirgis and Shapiro never condescend to these fiery Nuyoricans as they succumb to their worst impulses or astonish themselves, rising above a bad occasion. Caught up in confusion and contradictions that revolve like Todd Rosenthal’s delightfully detailed set, these five characters are just trying to be better humans, a struggle that’s much more edifying than watching bullets fly and blood spurt.
The Motherfucker with the Hat continues through March 3rd at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map), with performances Tuesdays-Fridays at 7:30pm, Saturdays and Sundays 3pm and 7:30pm. Tickets are $20-$86, and are available by phone (312-335-1650) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Steppenwolf.org. (Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
behind the scenes
Anna D. Shapiro (director); Todd Rosenthal (set); Linda Roethke (costumes); Donald Holder (lighting); Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen (sound design); Terence Blanchard (original music); Erica Daniels (casting); Matt Hawkins (fight choreographer); Cecilie O’Reilly (voice coach); Kim Osgood (stage manager); Christine D. Freeburg (assistant stage manager); Michael Brosilow (photos)