It doesn’t matter how earnestly or accurately you can quote the tenets of AA, a life of sobriety can be as difficult as one of raging addiction. Or, in the words of Veronica, the one non-recovering addict in The Motherfucker with the Hat: “You fake AA motherfuckers. . . . You’re all the time preaching honesty and selflessness, meanwhile you’re more dishonest and selfish than half of C block at fuckin’ Rikers.”
And so it goes in Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherfucker with the Hat, which is about as explicitly profane and acidly funny as the title would lead you to assume.
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, the piece offers an unflinching—and very funny—look at the wildly dysfunctional behavior that remains even after substance abusers (more or less) step away from the substances. But for all Guirgis’s verbal fireworks, he never really delves adequately into the five characters on stage. The dialogue, like the play itself, is entertaining, but fails to leave a lasting stamp. That said, The Motherfucker with the Hat is clever and exceedingly well performed. It also raises some provocative questions about morality—how responsible is an AA sponsor, for example. If you’re dedicated to keeping your charge sober, are you also required to keep your hands off his lover? There’s a warped moral compass at the heart of Guirgis’s drama, and it is these questions of everyday ethics that give the play what heft it has.
On the lesser end of the recovery spectrum is Veronica, who we meet at curtain up, snorting lines of coke while cleaning her apartment and talking to her mother. The conversation, highlighted by hilarious tough-love dating advice from mother to daughter, establishes Veronica (Sandra Delgado, a take-no-prisoners spitfire of strong opinions and equally potent sexuality) as the anchor of the piece.
We never see Veronica’s dysfunctional mother, but we do spend a lot of time with her dubiously recovering, ex-con boyfriend Jackie (John Ortiz, a wired bundle of vulnerability and self-absorption), who bursts onto the stage on the honeymoon high that so often accompanies the novelty of newfound sobriety. Exuberant over his new job at FedEx, Jackie is flying high until he notices a man’s hat in the corner of the room. Talk about a buzz kill. One moment he’s gleefully stripping down to his skivvies about to get busy with Veronica, the next he’s heatedly accusing her of screwing “the motherfucker downstairs.”
With Jackie and Veronica as the stormy center, Guirgis widens the co-dependent circle of players to include Jackie’s bullshit-spewing sponsor Ralph D. (Jimmy Smits, nailing the nuances of a 12-stepper who can talk the talk without walking the walk) and Ralph’s emotionally abused wife Victoria (Sandra Marquez, a heart-rending portrait of anger mostly turned inward). Finally there’s Jackie’s subtly fey cousin Julio (Gary Perez, powerful yet soft-spoken as the sole non-B.S.-spewing member of Jackie’s circle), the only consistently honest character in Guirgis’s profane web.
And as webs go, it’s well-constructed, laden with humor and provocative dialogue. Would that it really dug into these fascinating addicts rather than primarily playing their troubles for laughs.
The Motherfucker with the Hat continues through March 3 at the Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted. For more information, go to steppenwolf.org.
Catey Sullivan is Chicago magazine’s contributing theatre critic.
Photograph: Michael Brosilow