Theater Review: Short North Stage’s Acidic, Hilarious ‘The Motherf**ker with the Hat’
Stephen Adly Guirgis is one of America’s finest stage chroniclers of struggles on the fringes of society and The Motherf**ker with the Hat might be his masterpiece. This twisted love letter to recovery and living gets a jaw-dropping production at Short North Stage, directed by Chari Arespacochaga.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat follows Jackie (Raphael Ellenberg), recently out of jail after a two-year bid and high on freedom and new sobriety. We meet him ready to shower his love, Veronica (Lisa Glover), with gifts, and the promise of a new job he’s just gained. Fissures in the relationship loom ominously: in the first scene, we realize Veronica’s still using, thanks to a mirror covered in blow and a fifth of whiskey under the mattress. But what directly derails that train is another man’s fedora, next to the bed waiting for Jackie to notice it and lose his mind.
Even the people in the play with a higher claim to consciousness struggle to walk through their own mire and their own brains turning against them. Jackie’s sponsor and confidant, Ralph (Earley Dean), has stayed sober for 15 years and delivers rambling speeches that make sense, finds truth in aphorisms and cliches, but treats people like disposable footnotes in his story.
Ralph’s wife, Veronica (Maddie Lego), who he picked up early in her own recovery journey, struggles with meaning in her own sobriety and her place in a marriage dominated by Ralph’s raging ego. The character most successfully carving out his own path and living an authentic life is Jackie’s Cousin Julio (Matthew Sierra).
For all the seriousness of the themes, Arespacochaga’s Hat, moves with the tightly coiled machinery of wild farce. Banter shoots between characters, punchlines land like a sack full of quarters, characters stalk the finely observed stage (designed by Jason Bolen) humming with raw, dangerous energy. She and her characters hit every double-cross, every bad decision, every Oh God, really? moment the play has (and I’m actively not revealing the surprises in the second act) with an uncanny blend of virtuosity and psychological reality.
A play with this much rapid-fire dialogue over its tight two hours (with one intermission) needs its casting perfect, and it’s hard to imagine a better cast than this. Ellenberg epitomizes the person who’s seen his life become unmanageable and deeply wants to change but every instinct he has, honed by years of disappointments, pulls him into old patterns. His Jackie says variations of “I’m still me,” like a refrain throughout, a beacon that could guide him if it can stop being an excuse. Ellenberg understands every level of those words and carries them in every gesture.
Dean’s Ralph takes the charming, hollow man we’ve seen a million times, a charismatic charlatan preying on the vulnerable, but imbues it with an earnestness we haven’t seen. The play avoids easy answers and quick definitions at every turn and Dean seems to relish that challenge. There are moments – even as you watch him behave horribly, you understand why most of the cast falls in love with him and why people would follow him off a cliff.
Glover’s Veronica is another astonishing win in one of the finest streaks in Columbus theatre I can remember. Her character consistently surprises the audience, making everything feel surprising and inevitable at the same time. She knows the character’s contradictions – heartbreaking in her lack of self-awareness (she lectures her Mother about drinking while doing a bump) and tragically, rightly conscious of the way the world works.
Lego felt miscast – there’s dialogue that describes her character’s backstory that caused some cognitive dissonance toward the end of the first act – but she made up for it with a ferocious, brave performance. Within a scene of that moment where I questioned her casting, her work obliterated those doubts from my mind.
With all the firepower on stage, Matthew Sierra comes close to stealing the show. His Julio, conscious that the neighborhood called him mariconita and Jackie led that hateful charge, never gives up on his cousin but also never lets him off the hook. Sierra’s knack for broad comedy and steel spine shine as he asserts himself in every scene, letting the showier characters bounce off and orbit around his strength.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat distorted the very air with heat the night I was lucky enough to attend. A play as vibrant, as messy, as heart-breaking and as absurdly, deliciously funny as the world, given perfect, throbbing life in front of our eyes.