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Chicago by John Olson

The Motherf**ker with the Hat
Steppenwolf Theatre Company


Jimmy Smits and John Ortiz
One has to wonder if this play might have had a longer run on Broadway without its provocative and unprintable title. (More problematic may be its unsearchable title ... what words or spelling do you even put into Google to look for it, anyway?) One may also wonder if it might not have gotten better reviews if it had been played by the cast performing the piece now at Steppenwolf. Though the Broadway cast had star power in Chris Rock, Bobby Cannavale and Annabella Sciorra, and high-voltage Tony-Award nominated performances from Cannavale, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Yul Vasquez, Director Anna D. Shapiro's Steppenwolf revival dials down the volume from her Broadway mounting to a level that lets the emotions come through more powerfully. As much fun as I found the Broadway production to be, the flashy and arguably funnier performances of Cannavale and Rodriguez came close to commenting on their rather dim-witted characters rather than simply playing them, and distanced me from the characters even as I enjoyed the considerable stage charisma Cannavale and Rodriguez displayed.

Steppenwolf's production has star power of its own in Jimmy Smits, who's doing Chris Rock's role of the duplicitous AA sponsor of parolee and recovering addict/alcoholic Ralph D. It's easy to say Smits is a better actor than Rock—of course he is, what with Smits' years of stage, screen and TV work in dramatic roles, while Rock made his stage debut in this role. Smits succeeds in creating a more nuanced and sociopathic character in the role of Ralph, where Rock made the sponsor simply a cocky, unlikable cad. Smits has the additional advantage over Rock of physical presence. Smits' height, burliness and age help to make his Ralph a more imposing presence over the characters he manipulates. He uses this physicality, along with an interpretation of Ralph as an alternately charming and dangerous guy, and raises the stakes of Stephen Adly Guirgis' comedy-drama.

Just as important and impressive are the fine and subtle performances of the other four in the five-person cast. As Jackie, the ex-con who's riding high on a new job, some months of sobriety and an intention to propose to his long-time lover Veronica (Sandra Delgado) before he suspects her of infidelity, John Ortiz has a quiet demeanor and is vulnerable to the smarter people around him. Ortiz pulls us into Jackie's head and heart with his nuanced and natural interpretation. In the same manner, Sandra Delgado gives us a Veronica that is a bundle of damaged goods, albeit sexy ones. Delgado foregoes the temptation to go to the funny, Latin spitfire caricature (as funny as that was in Rodriguez' hands), and give us a woman who's really hurting.

Just as much of a knockout is Gary Perez, who plays the role that earned Yul Vasquez a Tony nomination. Julio is Jackie's cousin Julio, who has been perceived as gay since adolescence but is not openly gay (he frequently refers to his wife Marisol who is never seen in the play). Julio's stereotypically gay mannerisms combined with a macho bravado are as funny as they were in Vasquez' Broadway performance, but Perez also delivers a touching humanity. His character, like all the others, struggles with self-awareness, but Julio is the most sympathetic character in the play. He's the one who reveals Jackie's soul—to Jackie to himself as well as to the audience. Sandra Marquez as Ralph's wife Victoria throws some delicious barbs at Ralph, but lays her pain out in full view for the audience in a most convincing manner.

It's a testament to Shapiro's skill that she could put together two such different readings with only a change in casts. The Broadway set designed by Chicago's Todd Rosenthal so convincingly showing us three apartments—Jackie and Veronica's grim one, Cousin Julio's equally low rent but nicely decorated one, and Ralph and Victoria's more upscale place—is again used here. So is Donald Holder's lighting design and Terrance Blanchard's original musical score. I don't believe Shapiro has re-interpreted the text, but her Steppenwolf cast seems more realistic and less overtly theatrical than her Broadway troupe, and for me is the more moving ensemble because of this tonal difference.

As its title would suggest, The Motherf**ker with the Hat has language that's crude and places us squarely in a tough Puerto Rican neighborhood of New York City. The liberal use of the f-word and other crudities may be off-putting for many audiences, but Guirgis' characters have a certain mellifluous if vulgar verbosity that almost hypnotically carries us into this world. The characters' vocabularies are limited and crude, but their big emotions have to get out and be expressed somehow. To do that, they put together long and descriptive sentences in which their feelings bubble up in surprising and graphic ways.

The playwright's refusal to give us clear answers to the questions he raises or somebody to easily root for may be problematic for some as well. This ambiguity is a gift, though. While the intermissionless hour and 40 minutes are entertaining with their many biting putdowns and convoluted thinking from these characters' addictive minds, Guirgis leaves us with something to chew on long after we leave the theatre.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat will play The Steppenwolf downstairs theatre at 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago through March 3, 2013. For ticket information, visit www.Steppenwolf.org, call 312-335-1650 or visit the box office.


Photo: Michael Brosilow

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-- John Olson



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