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Theater Mon Jan 07 2013
How do we better ourselves? Or, to frame the question in the context of the addicts who populate Stephen Adly Guirgis' darkly comic drama, The Motherf**ker With The Hat, how do we get better? How do we stave off that most chronic of conditions: human weakness? It's a basic yet abstract dilemma that is given both vibrancy and gripping relevance in the latest production of the play at the Steppenwolf Theatre. For the users and losers grappling with their weaknesses in Guirgis' world of last chances, the difference between transcending and succumbing is nothing short of the difference between life and death.
The play centers on Jackie (John Ortiz), an ex-con and recovering alcoholic trying to stay clean and keep his relationship with his long-time, on-and-off girlfriend, Veronica (Sandra Delgado) afloat. But when Jackie discovers an unfamiliar fedora in their apartment, he finds himself unable to divest himself of the seed of doubt, a seed that quickly burrows itself deeper and deeper into his mind. It would be a disservice to reveal much more about the plot, since so much of the pleasure of the production lies in its masterful deployment of information. Previously watertight alibis loosen; histories swept under the rug begin to creep out from the edges. The more Jackie discovers, the more unsettling the truth becomes and the more hopeless reconciliation seems. Suffice it to say that between Jackie's health-obsessed sponsor, Ralph D. (Jimmy Smits), his cousin Julio (Gary Perez), and Ralph's wife, Victoria (Sandra Marquez), everyone has reason to cling to at least a secret or two.
If the above sounds like the setup for a standard afternoon soap opera, that's because it pretty much is. The difference in the case of Motherf**ker--and what makes all of its miring worthwhile--is its commitment to levity. There's no situation so tragic that director Anna D. Shapiro would abstain from milking it for laughs. (A state of affairs no doubt buoyed by the wit provided in Guirgis' script.) By the end of the play, the crisis and chaos that began with the hat has engulfed everyone involved. But these people aren't just punching bags--they're punching bags who have all been pummeled enough to know that the beating can always get worse.
It's that wry weariness, the constant refuge in the humor of agony, that makes Motherf**ker more than just a vanilla domestic drama. Guirgis reminds the audience throughout that any relief possible for people like this will probably be conditional and will definitely be temporary. As Julio freely reminds Jackie, he's not nearly as good a guy as he thinks he is. Ralph's charisma and positive attitude are believable only so long as he can repress the ugliness he so strenuously keeps at bay. And Veronica, as supportive as she may be, is still an addict. Grand, audience-gratifying words like "Redemption" and "Recovery," in this context, are decidedly relative. We hope for the best, but we expect the worst.
Considering the narrative and thematic weight of the material, the cast of Motherf**ker prove themselves to be, well, a tough bunch of motherf**kers. Ortiz's haplessness is at once frustrating and endearing. Smits' well-known charisma finds a perfect match in Ralph's gradually increasing despicability. And as Veronica, Delgado is wild-eyed, fierce, and legitimately scary. If the ensemble occasionally shows the strain of working under Guirgis' nonstop showcase of human misery, it's certainly understandable: they're dealing with a tightly packed can of worms.
Don't misunderstand: despite its undeniable humor, Motherf**ker is a cold, skeptical look at our everyday potential for evils both small and large. It's an exhausting, intermission-less hour and forty minutes. But for those who can handle the beating, it's certainly worth it.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat runs through Mar. 3 at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets range from $20 to $86 and can be purchased online or by phone at 312-335-1650.