‘Motherf**ker With The Hat:’ Profane but not profound

Avi Small, Writer

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From the moment you open the program of “The Motherf**ker With the Hat,” you know this isn’t going to be a restrained performance. Walking into the theater, I wondered how many people in this mostly white, septuagenarian matinee audience had the guts to walk up to the box office and ask for “Motherf**king” tickets. At least the title gave them a hint of what they were in for. Profane, loud and as tough as the Bronx neighborhoods it features, this latest production at the Steppenwolf Theatre tackles themes as diverse as alcoholism, human nature and Jean-Claude Van Damme with humor but little insight.

Directed by Tony Award winner and Northwestern Communication Prof. Anna Shapiro, “The Motherf***ker With The Hat” centers around Jackie (John Ortiz), an ex-con trying to put his life back together with the help of his longtime girlfriend Veronica (Sandra Delgado), his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor Ralph D. (Jimmy Smits) and his somewhat estranged Cousin Julio (Gary Perez). NU Communication Prof. Sandra Marquez is featured as Ralph’s wife, Victoria.

All five members of this accomplished cast play characters with grit, realism and heart. Each stands out in different moments. Ortiz shows Jackie’s vulnerability convincingly, making it clear why he’s so screwed up and why he tries so hard. As Veronica, Delgado shines, milking every single bit of comedy from her angry tirades. Together Ortiz and Delgado have believable chemistry as high school sweethearts 10 years down the road. Smits helps us understand and maybe even empathize with his twisted moral code, even as we fully understand why Victoria is so bitter and disappointed. Perez’s Cousin Julio shines — he is both the comic relief and moral center of the show; his Van Damme imitation is as spot-on as his cutting analysis of Jackie’s moral failings.

Even with the excellent performances and innovative direction (including an impressive three-part rotating set and sound design that brings gritty urban realism into the theater), “Motherf**ker” doesn’t sparkle. The mile-a-minute dialogue is clever but doesn’t dig deep into the issues it discusses. Jackie is an alcoholic, Veronica snorts cocaine, Ralph D. is an adulterer and Victoria is probably depressed — all of these are just vehicles for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ curse-filled script, and none are explored in full.

“The Motherf***ker with The Hat” is a lot of fun. Taunts and curses volley across the stage in hands of extraordinarily capable actors. But as an exploration of addiction and modern love, “Motherf**ker” falls short.