There’s a theory espoused by a certain number of skeptical thinkers (okay, by me) that Alcoholics Anonymous is a little like Catholicism: It makes it okay for people to be complete assholes. No matter how many sins you commit or how grimy the dumpster you wake up in after a 72-hour binge, all will be expunged the next time you head to a meeting or step inside a confessional. There’s no end to the potential for forgiveness and no rock bottom craggy enough not to clamber wearily up from.
The Motherfucker With the Hat, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s darkly entertaining show currently playing at Studio Theatre, explores morality in all its twisted, complex, 12-stepping glory, and if Serge Seiden’s production were a little smoother, it might be an uproarious and insightful riot. As it is, the energy falls just a little too flat to carry Guirgis’s fusion of fortune-cookie psychology, pop culture, and profanity. Jackie (Drew Cortese) is a parolee returning home from 26 months of incarceration upstate, newly sober and clashing with his still-using girlfriend, Veronica (Rosal Colón). Veronica, who snorts a line of coke off a chair within the play’s first 60 seconds, is Jackie’s childhood sweetheart, although “sweet” isn’t really an apt way to describe her ferociously aggressive, cynical attitude: “You got an imagination like Dr. fuckin’ Seuss and shit” is one of her softer lines.
Jackie’s sponsor, Ralph (Quentin Maré), is a decades-sober flag-bearer for sobriety, sipping vitamin smoothies with the same zeal with which Veronica sucks on her crack pipe. He’s also, it soon emerges, something of a sociopath in a faded Buddha tee. While Jackie tentatively sticks a toe into the waters of self-improvement, rejoicing in his new job but boiling over with rage when he finds evidence of Veronica’s infidelity, Ralph has all the messianic self-satisfaction of the average cult leader, using AA to cheat on his wife (Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey) and bolster his own ego as a clean-living, enlightenment-embracing success story. Water—as it so often does in theater—brings revelation; we see Veronica telling a man in the onstage shower that their relationship is over, and sure enough, the man who emerges from the steam turns out to be Ralph, in all his full-frontal glory.
Guirgis’s use of language is pitch-perfect, from Veronica’s foul-mouthed sweet nothings (“I’m gonna go to Carvel after we finish our business, baby, and I’m gonna get you a fuckin’ cake,” she tells Jackie to congratulate him on his new job) to Ralph’s faux-Zen phoniness. His most brilliant character is Jackie’s cousin Julio (Liche Ariza), an effeminate man in sweats who emulates Jean-Claude Van Damme and burns with loyalty for his misguided friend, feeding him empanadas and green eggs with spirulina (Dr. Seuss again) and reminding Jackie in one moving scene of his authentic good-guy roots. Debra Booth’s set is yellow but clinical, consisting mostly of a few moving pieces of furniture and a mess of kitchen appliances on a counter off to one side. There’s little beyond boxes and a pot plant to offer any insight into the characters or their messy (literally and figuratively) home lives.
The actors are strong, particularly Ariza as the endearingly offbeat Julio and Cortese as Jackie, who screws up his face, pounds his fists, and seems likely to implode at any minute with the impossible pressure of trying to behave. Even Jackie finally learns to see through the psychobabble of Ralph, played with Wayne Coyne-like charm by Maré. Fernandez-Coffey is believably frustrated and complex as his long-suffering spouse, and Colón sputters with fury as the troubled Veronica. But Guirgis’s scenes require constant energy and a jittery pace to carry the audience—in Seiden’s production there are long stretches of characters talking about nothing that can start to feel a little tedious. A fight scene between Cortese and Maré, meanwhile, doesn’t feel as threatening or tense as it could.
Still, the story of Jackie and his breaking-not-so-bad road to redemption offers plenty of twisted humor, as well as a curiously optimistic parable on the hazards of clean living. Jackie’s path may well feature another sojourn upstate, but it’s hard not to feel through Cortese’s nuanced performance that the character’s potential won’t end there.
The Motherfucker With the Hat is at Studio Theatre through March 24.* Running time is about one hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($42 to $75) available via Studio’s website.
*This post has been updated from a previous version.