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Steppenwolf cast’s ‘Hat’ trick: Making Guirgis’ lines crackle

‘THE MOTHER------ WITH THE HAT’

RECOMMENDED

When: Through March 3

Where: Steppenwolf
Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

Tickets: $20-$86

Info: (312) 335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org

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Updated: February 8, 2013 6:19AM



The partially unprintable title of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “The Mother------ with the Hat” is an easy attention-getter. But it is not nearly as graphic, profane, angry or scatologically imaginative as many of the other obscenity-laced linguistic turns in his surprisingly heartfelt if not always believable play.

Yet the title does do an efficient job of triggering the action in a story involving the closely intertwined, strangely loving but deeply dysfunctional relationships between lovers, a husband and wife, two cousins, and a recent parolee and his seemingly devoted “sponsor” from Alcoholics Anonymous.

“Mother------,” which debuted on Broadway in 2011 with a starry cast under the direction of Tony Award-winning Chicago director Anna D. Shapiro, now is receiving its Steppenwolf Theatre premiere. It arrives here expertly retuned by Shapiro, and with an entirely different but equally starry cast that comes with a decidedly effective Latin twist.

A tragicomedy of very bad manners and screwed-up values, it deals with loyalty, betrayal, jealousy, self-destructiveness, self-deception, selfishness, loneliness, rehab, redemption and a couple of genuinely fractured hearts. And while I’m not sure I fully believe a single minute of this 100-minute drama, there is something quite addictive about jumping onto Guirgis’ fast-moving emotional carousel ride and seeing how five hugely watchable actors ride their characters, and whip their dialogue for all it’s worth.

The time is now. The place is three distinctively different tenement apartments in New York, all locking into place in designer Todd Rosenthal’s brilliantly rotating and revolving puzzle box of a set which is crowned by a steely, free-floating skylight frame and accented by a stairway to the stratosphere, if not to paradise.

When we first meet him, the newly paroled Jackie (boyish, earnest, sweet-faced John Ortiz) is in a state of high exuberance, having just nabbed a job as a unionized janitor. He breaks the news to Veronica (Sandra Delgado, with her va-va-va-voom body and tough-as-nails veneer), the girl he has loved since eighth grade, who has a potty mouth, a cocaine habit and a whole lot of rage. And everything seems to be going well — until, that is, he spots a man’s hat on the table. The hat does not belong to him. Something inside him snaps. And as the play unspools, he discovers the betrayal reaches far deeper than he ever suspected.

Jackie is temporarily taken in by his sponsor, Ralph D (Jimmy Smits, relaxed and smarmy, with a practiced cool), who has been on the wagon for 15 years, and who now peddles health foods. It quickly becomes clear that Ralph’s smart and attractive wife, Victoria (Sandra Marquez, tightly wired and tautly funny), is not a happy spouse.

When he jeopardizes his parole by getting into trouble with a borrowed gun, Jackie turns to his Cousin Julio (Gary Perez) for help. A Puerto Rican emigre of questionable sexual persuasion, Julio runs a home botanica and fancies himself a closet Jean-Claude Van Damme, and the fleet, compact Perez comes close to stealing the show with his engaging characterization.

Are addicts any more selfish than the rest of us? Does love invariably turn to betrayal? Is an “anything goes” morality the only practical way to make it through life, or, as Jackie suggests, is there a better way?

Guirgis, whose previous plays include “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.” writes clever, flamboyant, rapid-fire dialogue that mixes high and low voices with a zestful poetic verve. It often feels as if the words are coming from the brain of the playwright rather than the mouths of the characters, but if you think of “Mother------” as a street opera, it sings.



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