By Emily Marlatt
Stephen Adly Guirgis’ foulmouthed, sidesplitting exploration of jealousy and addiction, The Motherf**ker with the Hat, is currently cursing up a storm at Steppenwolf Theatre Company under the direction of ensemble member, Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County).
Jackie (John Ortiz), a recovering addict and recent parolee, finally seems to be turning his life around until he discovers another man’s hat in the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Veronica (Sandra Delgado). Thrown into a jealous frenzy, Jackie begins trying to track down the eponymous “motherf**ker” with all the skill and accuracy of a sniper with a squirt gun. Amidst his cloud of addiction, recovery, jealousy and (in)sincerity, Jackie is surrounded by a colorful cast of characters including his smooth-talking sponsor, Ralph D. (Jimmy Smits), and his lovably boisterous Cousin Julio (Gary Perez).
Guirgis’ play delves into the world of addiction, clearly showing there are substances more dangerous than drugs or alcohol. Indeed, throughout the course of the play, using and drinking only exacerbate the incredible damage created by addictive relationships.
John Ortiz skillfully portrays the struggle of an addict trying to make sense of his mess of a life. Jackie, who is relatively upfront about his feelings, struggles to reconcile the world he thinks he lives in and the one he uncovers after the discovery of the hat. Of course, it is difficult to accept that things are not always what they seem. It is even more difficult to accept that something or someone can be two things at once. Jackie must come to terms with the fact that a long-time girlfriend might also be a cheater and that his tremendous sponsor might not be an equally supportive friend.
If Jackie is a good guy with a life gone wrong, Ralph D. is the worst possible opposite. He may have the house, income and wife that Jackie does not, but he lacks the moral fiber to really back up the twelve steps which he preaches. Jimmy Smits, perhaps best-known for his long-time television roles on L.A. Law and NYPD Blue, tackles the complicated role of Ralph D. In the first half of the play, Smits succeeds in capturing the cocky confidence and ease of a man who has figured out how to make the system work for him, a feat perhaps too subtle to draw much notice. In the latter half of the play, as Ralph’s character is more fully realized, Smits doesn’t seem to be maximizing the full potential of this role or his relatively well-known talent as an actor. While Ralph D. should be transforming and coming alive to fight for what he wants, Smits remains stuck in the complacency of the easygoing Ralph of earlier in the play.
While the subject matter of The Motherf**ker with the Hat is decidedly serious and, well…explicit, the production is full of truly hilarious characters and language. Between Guirgis’ witty script and Shapiro’s keen directing, the characters—and particularly the failing relationships—brilliantly come to life in all their foulmouthed glory. Many of the production’s funniest and most poignant moments are courtesy of Cousin Julio, portrayed by Gary Perez. In a play of contradictions, this flamboyant fan of flora is simultaneously a lover and a fighter, not to mention a gay man devoted to his wife, Marisol. Never afraid to tell it like it is, Julio forces Jackie to face the sobering truth while still providing comic relief. From Godfather allusions to heartfelt stories of childhood loneliness, Perez perfectly maneuvers his character from high to low, through laughter and tears.
Although it ends on an arguably ambiguous note, Steppenwolf’s production of The Motherf**ker with the Hat succeeds in raising questions of what makes an addict and how to deal with the conflicting identities of that world. In a word, this production was: genuine. Hilariously—and at times brutally—honest, Shapiro and her cast present the real and surprisingly relatable struggles of Guirgis’ characters without offering any half-hearted solutions. Perhaps the cycle of addiction continues for these people. Maybe they will finally be able to remove the toxic from their lives. Either way, these perfectly flawed characters have more than just twelve steps ahead of them on the road to recovery.
Emily Marlatt is a 3rd year BFA Theatre Arts major from Arlington, Texas. She is double majoring in English Literature and minoring in American Sign Language. Her credits at The Theatre School include Assistant Director on Nine Circles by Bill Cain, directed by Kevin Fox, and Assistant Dramaturg on Spring Awakening by Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater, directed by Damon Kiely. She also served as Assistant Director for Emerald City Theatre Company’s production of Alice in Wonderland, written and directed by Ernie Nolan. She is currently working on A Tribute to Thick Leonard, a new play by Gilbert Tanner, directed by Shade Murray as a part of The Theatre School’s New Playwright Series.