Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Digging 'The Motherf**ker with the Hat' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

The Motherf**ker with the Hat
a play by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago
Thru March 3

As one is well-reminded on every visit, Steppenwolf Theatre features an impressive ensemble including many marquee names—John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Gary Cole, Laurie Metcalf, John Mahoney, William Petersen and more—the first four of whom haven’t been seen on its stage in many a year.

So it’s interesting that coming off a year in which Steppenwolf’s productions did not match the Goodman Theatre’s for star power—i.e. Nathan Lane, Brian Dennehy and Diane Lane—in staging The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Steppenwolf opted to bring in noted TV actor Jimmy Smits to play the role of Ralph.

I’m not saying that Malkovich, Sinise, Cole or Petersen should’ve played the role; none may have been ideal for a character Stephen Adly Guirgis’ script seemingly imbues with urban flavor. But along with noting that on Broadway—where the show, like here, was directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro—Ralph was played by Chris Rock, after seeing the show at a Sunday matinee, it seems somewhat noteworthy that…

Jimmy Smits is not the star.

This isn’t to say that he isn’t good, nor physically imposing nor that Ralph doesn’t get substantial stage time. But considerably more central is the character of Jackie, played in Chicago by John Ortiz.

And while Smits is good, Ortiz is superb.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow, steppenwolf.org
This isn’t all that surprising when one notes that A) Guirgis claims to have written the role for Ortiz as part of New York’s LAByrinth Theater Co., which Ortiz co-founded with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and B) Ortiz can be seen doing terrific work as Bradley Cooper’s best friend in the Oscar nominated movie Silver Lining’s Playbook.

Competing with Ortiz for the best thing about The Mofo with the Hat—with no disrespect meant to Smits or the other three cast members, who are all demonstrably stellar, nor the script itself—is Todd Rosenthal’s amazingly inventive and functional set design, which seamlessly rotates and flips between three different apartment interiors.

The first flat is the one that Jackie—an ex-con and recovering addict—shares with his beautiful but drug-addled girlfriend Veronica, sassily played by Sandra Delgado. Their lives intertwine with Ralph (Smits), who is Jackie’s AA sponsor and married, tempestuously, to Victoria (Sandra Marquez). The third apartment belongs to Jackie’s cousin Julio (Gary Perez), who seems to be both outwardly gay and outwardly married to a woman, although we never see her.

The 100-minute play works as a series of dialogues—and occasional trialogues—between Jackie and Veronica, Jackie and Ralph, Ralph and Victoria, Jackie and Julio (and Ralph), etc., in the various apartments.

There is much humor and much profanity, and in presenting people suffering under the weight of addiction and the economy yet struggling for love, in modern-day non-Manhattan NYC, The Motherf**ker with the Hat is never less than entertaining. Especially if you can snag a $20 day-of-show discount ticket like I did—Steppenwolf still graciously offers 20 for each performance, even with a star like Smits in tow—I recommend that you see it.

Photo credit: Michael Brosilow, steppenwolf.org
But on a first encounter with this piece, after which I valued Steppenwolf’s regular post show discussion, I’m not sure I properly appreciated whatever depth was beneath the surface. I understand that Guirgis is showing us that regardless of one’s station in life, the same issues with which we can all identify—love, friendship, loyalty, family, truth, etc.—still apply.

And I think I get the point that regardless of the reasons for the bleakness of one’s situation, it is pretty universal to fight through it. The problem I had with The Motherf**ker with the Hat is that although I liked all the performances, I’m not sure I liked any of the characters enough to really care what might happen to them after the play ends.

In other words, I liked the drama as it was unfolding, but wasn’t left with much to ponder afterwards. Which is why this Motherf**ker gets @@@@ and not more.

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