Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Company Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through March 3
By ANNE SPISELMAN
If you’re captivated by damaged, self-deluded, dysfunctional urban characters, then Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Motherfu**ker with the Hat” is one for you. Savvily staged for Steppenwolf Theatre by ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro, who also directed the 2011 New York debut, the caustically funny-sad play explores the co-dependent relationships of a handful of Puerto Rican New Yorkers struggling with addictions, betrayals, self-sabotage and the specter of despair.
Things are looking up at the start of the 100-minute intermission-less evening, but go downhill from there. Recovering alcoholic Jackie (John Ortiz), recently released from prison, arrives home elated from a successful job-hunting expedition with a raft of little gifts (a chocolate bar, a stuffed toy, etc.) for his girlfriend Veronica (Sandra Delgado), who’s just been cleaning up their shabby room in between snorting a white substance while trying to convince her mother on the phone to dry out and ditch a boyfriend who resembles a fish. But when Veronica goes to take a shower, Jackie sees a man’s porkpie hat that’s not his on a table near the bed and becomes convinced he smells “Aqua Velva and dick” on the sheets. He confronts Veronica who, outraged, unleashes a torrent of insulting curses that escalates into all-out verbal warfare between them. It’s barely calmed when she, perhaps scared by his determination to seek revenge, begs him to go to “that pie place,” just have some pie, and maybe talk.
Language abundantly and poetically laced with profanity and platitudes is used as a weapon in the rest of the scenes, most of which feature two or three characters. But nothing quite equals that opener. Jackie’s quest for vengeance and guidance takes him to the well-appointed home of his AA sponsor, Ralph D. (Jimmy Smits), an advocate of clean living who’s embraced nutritional beverages and advises restraint while indulging in womanizing that’s destroying his marriage to Victoria (Sandra Marquez). And after he ignores that advice, obtains a gun and shoots the hat, Jackie seeks help from his Cousin Julio (Gary Perez), a fey cosmetologist with a commitment to healthy food and growing plants whose wife Marisol is away.
Julio, the closest the play comes to a moral touchstone, tells Jackie he doesn’t like him, basically because of his selfishness and lack of sensitivity, but agrees to help for Jackie’s dead mother’s sake. That, however, turns out to be only part of the truth.
Beyond all the lies and deceptions, Guirgis seems to be questioning the foundations of love and trust, the fundamentals that bind people together. As part of his justification for his reprehensible behavior, Ralph D. informs Jackie of “one true thing” about friendship: “Anybody you meet before the age of, say 25? That’s your friend. Anybody after that? That’s just an associate. Someone to pass the time, someone who meets maybe one or two specific needs. But friend? Shit. Friends are at the playground. If that sounds tough, that’s because it is. It‘s called the real world.”
Although this observation comes from an unreliable source, Jackie’s strongest ties are with Julio, whose loyalty (we learn) is inspired by a childhood incident, and with Veronica, who’s been the love of his life on and off since they were kids. It’s the revelation of these connections, and of both their endurance and limitations, that gives “Motherf**ker” its most moving moments and an appeal that transcends the immediate situation.
In retrospect, that appeal is beautifully captured in the first scene – and in the last – thanks to Ortiz’s complex portrayal of Jackie’s hopes, fears, small triumphs and defeats, and to Delgado’s Veronica, whose tirades and tantrums so keenly betray an addict in deep pain trying to keep from being overwhelmed. Jimmy Smits is an imposing presence as Ralph D. but doesn’t have enough charm to explain why Marquez’s Victoria, an underwritten role, loves and stays with him despite his infidelity, or to balance the contempt we feel for his hypocrisy and abuse of power. Even Jackie’s initial attachment to him could use a little more support. While Perez’s Julio relies on clichés to some extent, he imbues them with originality and sly humor, practically stealing every scene he’s in.
The technical elements are all in place, but kudos go especially to Todd Rosenthal’s scenic design (also from the New York production), which ingeniously and efficiently shifts among three very different apartments. In truth, watching this happen makes up for some of the less compelling moments in a script that occasionally gets too wrapped up in showing off its verbiage.