The Motherf**ker with the Hat
"The Motherf**cker with the Hat" written by Stephen Adly Guirgis and deftly directed by Anna D. Shapiro is not the noir comedy I somehow expected. Maybe it was the posters with the grinning man with a bullet hole through his hat, the name ’Veronica’ spelled out above his head in smoke. It evoked images of Sam Spade and some dame in a modern setting. It was, however, interesting, funny, and smart with superb acting.
Jackie, played by John Ortiz, a young recovering alcoholic, has just gotten out of prison on parole and is spending time with his girlfriend, Veronica, played by Sandra Delgado. They are childhood sweethearts, but neither character’s life has gone so sweetly. As is the pattern of an addict, Jackie’s decisions are bad and his life has become the inevitable conclusion of those decisions.
Veronica is still using, but holding down a job, paying her bills, and mostly keeping it together. When Jackie spots another man’s hat in Veronica’s apartment, a hat he assumes belongs to the motherf**ker downstairs, and jumps to the conclusion Veronica has been cheating on him. All hell breaks loose.
Jackie moves out of Veronica’s and onto the couch of his charismatic and troubled AA sponsor, Ralph D, and Ralph’s wife Victoria, played by Sandra Marquez. Jackie also goes to his cousin and childhood friend Julio to get rid of the illegal gun he has. Julio is loyal, but nobody’s fool, and tells Jackie what he thinks of the mess he made of his life, while still agreeing to help.
This play takes place in three locations: Veronica’s apartment, Ralph and Victoria’s apartment, and Julio’s apartment. The sets spin, flip, and float on and off set in a symphony of staging that is truly inspiring and mind-boggling. Julio’s nattily decorated apartment rolls counterclockwise off stage while Veronica’s bed rotates down out of the wall and the three couches of the three different abodes spin like a pie case into use. Sometimes the actors appear in their respective homes for just a moment in between scenes to give the audience a taste of what is going on elsewhere, and then float away again in the gentle rhythm of the play. The staging here is magnificent, impressive and a feat of theater engineering.
Veteran TV and film actor and Emmy Award winner Jimmy Smits plays Ralph, Jackie’s AA sponsor and armchair philosopher. Ralph has been sober for 15 years and it is obvious he wants to help Jackie, wants him to succeed, and can analyze Jackie’s life, what is not working in it clearly, but not his own.
Ralph is a man who is spinning plates. Sure, he has been a sober addict for 15 years but just because he isn’t using drugs doesn’t make him a saint. Ralph is a motherf**ker, and Smits plays him with a calm energy always on the edge of losing it. Fifteen years of sobriety is nothing to sneer at, and Ralph has learned some tricks, but he is still trouble.
Smits stalks around stage, long-legged and smooth, making Ralph a charming guy and a complete phony jerk at the same time. Ralph doles out good advice to Jackie while his own marriage crumbles and he makes bad decisions left and right.
Gary Perez as Cousin Julio is the focus of every scene he is in. His perfect timing and strong performance as Jackie’s fey, loving, maybe-closeted, and married homosexual cousin living in the neighborhood and still figuring his stuff out is pitch perfect. Julio makes sure everyone knows where he or she stands with him. He doesn’t like Ralph, reading him correctly as a duplicitous friend to Jackie. He isn’t happy with how Jackie treats him as a place to dump an illegal firearm. He thinks Veronica is troubled, and his reading of the other characters adds a much-needed breath of reason to the machinations of the others.
In the end, the play tries to be a love story. Can Jackie and Veronica work it out? Addiction makes it hard to imagine and the damage that people do to one another can be hard to heal. Jackie learns about the road he has ahead of him if he wants to get to where Ralph is at 15 years sober. Can he be a better version of sober is the question both he and Veronica are left with.
"The Motherf**ker with the Hat" runs through Mar. 3 at the Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 North Halsted Street in Chicago. For info or tickets, visit steppenwolf.org.