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Theater Review: “The Motherf***er With the Hat” at Studio Theatre

Serge Seiden directs Stephen Adley Guirgis’s darkly entertaining 21st-century morality tale.

Drew Cortese and Liche Ariza in The Motherfucker With the Hat. Photograph by Teddy Wolff.

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.