Some motherfucker who’s fucking Jackie’s girlfriend Veronica (Ruth Gamble) has left his fucking hat behind, and Jackie (Patrick Jordan) wants to know: who’s the motherfucker with the hat? That quick summary of the play’s inciting incident tells you just about everything you need to know about the language and tone of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s sharp, engaging, and very funny play The Motherfucker with the Hat; where the play goes from there, however, is far more heartfelt, surprising, and insightful than the jealous-hothead-boyfriend-romcom setup would ever lead you to believe. Jackie, you see, is trying to turn his life around: recently released from jail, where he spent time on drug charges, he’s in a twelve-step program and taking his sobriety one day at a time. Veronica, his girlfriend since eighth grade, is about as far from rehab as a person can get, but Jackie is as addicted to her as she is to the various substances she abuses. After discovering the hat in his apartment, Jackie seeks advice from his AA sponsor, Ralph D. (Edwin Lee Gibson), who seems to bear his own relationship cross in the form of Victoria (Daina Michelle Griffith), his bitchy harridan of a wife. Impatient with Ralph’s anodyne AA platitudes, Jackie takes desperate, parole-violating measures that lead him to seek help from his cousin Julio (Leandro Cano) to hide a gun. As the events of the play unfold, so do a series of revelations and betrayals that throw Jackie further off balance until, eventually, by the bittersweet ending, he starts to find his inner equilibrium.
The comedy and tragedy of sexual infidelity is only partly what this play is about, however; its real object of scrutiny and mirth, it seems to me, is our endless capacity for self-delusion as a means of self-protection. Cousin Julio tells Jackie, in a come-to-Jesus moment of brutal honesty, that the gap between who Jackie thinks he is and what Jackie looks like to the rest of the world is very very wide, and this is a statement true not only of Jackie but of all the characters in the play. Ralph, Jackie’s sponsor, is a transparent hypocrite who uses the twelve-step “forgiveness” model to pre- and post-justify all manner of moral failings; Julio’s repeated nattering references to his curiously absent wife, “my Marisol,” serve as an awkward and ineffective screen to hide his homosexuality; Veronica’s abuse of everything and everyone that comes in range is the armor she dons to escape her own feelings of vulnerability; and Victoria’s hostile rage is a symptom of her belief that she is superior to the life she’s ended up living. Such self-delusions reveal the difficulties (one might even say, the impossibility) of living life according to a coherent philosophy or set of principles – no one in this play makes consistent choices, because, as the play makes clear, real life doesn’t fucking work that way.
Guirgis has written smart, complicated, and at times unpredictable characters, and the barebones ensemble realizes those characters with fierce intelligence. Gamble and Griffith both succeed superbly at the difficult task of giving us a glimpse at the seed of hurt around which their characters’ tough shells have calcified. Gibson is both charming and effectively disingenous as Ralph; he brings a sincerity to the role that is key to our ability to see Ralph as a victim of his own self-blindness (rather than merely a jerk, which he also is). Leandro Cano is absolutely winning as the simultaneously fussy and tough Julio, bringing depth to a role that could, in less capable hands, easily slide into stereotype. And Patrick Jordan, fully in his comfort zone as Jackie, is keenly astute in his exploration of the vast emotional and psychological landscape his character traverses in the course of the play, from the joyful peaks to the despairing canyons, with brave and honest excursions into every confused nook and embarrassing cranny along the way. Rich Keitel’s direction is surehanded and confident, and there’s nothing barebones at all about the production. Douglas McDermott’s clever revolving set establishes visual parallels between the three spaces as it distinguishes them from each other; Dave Bjornson’s catchy and vibrant sound design catapults us through the scene transitions; Andrew David Ostrowski’s lighting design makes excellent use of the New Hazlett’s brick interior to establish the urban ecosystem that shapes these characters’ actions; and Richard Parsakian’s costume design fully captures and conveys their social status and aspirations.