Chicago Theater Review: THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT (Steppenwolf)

by Samantha Nelson on January 10, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

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HATS OFF TO STEPPENWOLF

If the title wasn’t enough of a clue, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker with the Hat is filled with bad language. But what’s really surprising is how well it uses creative vulgarity to shape a hilarious tale.

Jackie (John Ortiz) is a recovering alcoholic on parole who seems to be finally getting his life back on track. He’s landed a job with the promise of career advancement and is dreaming of starting the life he’s always wanted with his childhood sweetheart Veronica (Sandra Delgado). But when he comes home to his shabby apartment to shower her with gifts such as lotto tickets and a tiny clinging stuffed bear, their plans to celebrate with a Carvel Ice Cream Cake, described in perhaps the filthiest fashion possible for a family-friendly frozen treat, are cut short when he discovers another man’s hat on the table and his scent on their bed.

The shouting match that follows is an indication of the dysfunctional relationship that might keep his happily-ever-after from ever being a reality. The delightful crassness includes a description of life with Veronica as handing Godzilla his balls to chew on – although she does match him by making disturbing promises of things she’d do to other women, including a nun. The sharp dialogue continues as his incredible poorly thought out quest for vengeance leads him to seek council from his cousin Julio (Gary Perez) and his sponsor Ralph D. (Jimmy Smits).

With such rapid-fire dialogue keeping the laughs flowing, Anna D. Shapiro, who also directed the show’s Broadway premiere, proves that an extended silence is one of the best ways to evoke a somber mood in serious sections. She also makes great blocking decisions, taking advantage of the actors’ size differences:  Jackie literally has look to up to Ralph as he stands in his lovely living room and great physical humor is employed with the scrawny Julio trying to physically confront Ralph.

Smits, who’s had guest runs on The West Wing and Sons of Anarchy, is the big name here and he shows off his talent for being both incredibly friendly and deeply troubled (the same characteristics that won him an Emmy nomination for his role on Dexter). His performance is the highlight, but Perez is close behind him; he delivers a truly stunning dressing-down of the show’s protagonist only to later provide a touching look at why we come back to people who are cruel to us in the play’s most emotional scene. The furious chemistry between Ortiz and Delgado is perfect and Sandra Marquez offers a painfully good turn as Ralph’s depressed wife, Victoria.

Todd Rosenthal’s scene design brings the frenetic movement of the show to life, with furniture rotating in and out to transition between Julio, Ralph and Jackie’s homes. In one particularly brilliant move, the set transitions for just a second to provide a glimpse of what a character is up to, before quickly moving back to the main action.

A play about addiction and infidelity could easily be a dour drama, but The Motherfucker with the Hat manages to take an insightful look at the hardships of both love and clean living by using laughs instead of a heavy hand.

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photos by Michael Brosilow

The Motherfucker with the Hat
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre
scheduled to end on March 3, 2012
for tickets, call 312-335-1650 or visit http://www.steppenwolf.org

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

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