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Everymotherfucker: The Motherfucker With the Hat is about all of us

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play explores human motherfuckingness

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The first scene of Stephen Adly Guirgis's The Motherfucker With the Hat is fast, flashy, and tremendously assured. A tough-cookie Nuyorican named Veronica is straightening up her crummy residential-hotel studio and taking occasional snorts of a white powder as she talks to her hard-drinking mother by phone. She wants mom to drop her current boyfriend, a "fuckin' big-time loser with a head like a actual fuckin' fish!" "Ma, when you see him tonight: Take a moment. Take a breath," Veronica counsels. "Take a real good look and just ax yourself in all honesty—'Do I wanna fuck him—or fry him up with a little adobo and paprika. . . ?'"

In walks Veronica's own sweet guppy, Jackie, bearing gifts for his "Beautiful Boriqua Taino Mamacita Love Me Long Time Princess fuckin' Beauty Queen." Although he was recently a guest of the New York City Department of Corrections at Rikers Island, Jackie has joined AA and seems ready to turn over any number of new leaves. In fact, tonight's splurge on Veronica—flowers, a Hershey bar, a fuzzy pink bear toy, lotto and movie tickets, and the promise of popcorn and Junior Mints later on—is the result of his having landed a job with a property management company.

Jackie is fuckin' high on life, and it's giving him ideas. He imagines himself rising to the position of building super. He imagines settling down with Veronica.

But then he notices the gray porkpie hat on the little table by the door—the "man hat," he notes, "that ain't my hat." What's more, he claims to have detected the scent of "Aqua Velva and dick" on the bed sheets. Veronica takes exception to Jackie's suggestion that she's had a visitor. They quarrel loudly—but also with an odd, ornery delicacy, in the manner of people who (a) are desperate not to lose each other, and (b) have probably undergone court-ordered group therapy at various points in their lives. They agree to put off any major decisions until after they've had some pie at the pie place. "Look," says Veronica, "let's just go there, to the pie place, and we'll have, like, some pie, and we'll just, like, talk, or not even talk, we'll just eat pie first and be. And after that, we'll talk."

I could quote this stuff all day. The slang. The sly detail. The prosody—especially the rhythms, punctuated by hard-sound repetitions ("pie" and "place," "like" and "talk"). Not to mention the heartbreaking comedy of two fuckups trying hard not to fuck up yet again, even though fucking up holds an intense allure for both of them. And then there's the mechanics of Guirgis's storytelling. Boom, boom, boom: he lays out what we need to know and, just as importantly, what we don't and wish we did—like, what's the real story behind that hat? It's absolutely masterful.

But it doesn't last. Much of what's sharp about Guirgis's opening gambit starts to cloy after a while. As ingratiating as it is profane, Guirgis's wit begins to look more and more like showboating. Or even, at times, like plain old logorrhea. Each succeeding scene in this 105-minute one-act takes on more verbal ballast until the showboat is sitting awfully low in the water. Director Anna Shapiro staged the 2011 Broadway production of Motherfucker and delivers some exceedingly fine moments in this Steppenwolf Theatre production, yet there comes a point at which she can do no more than set a couple actors on their marks and let them talk at each other like they were playing the dozens.

Which isn't to say that I don't recommend the show. I very definitely do. For one thing, it's got more life and fun in its little finger than any hundred other recent works I've seen about urban losers—including Steppenwolf's own version of the David Lindsay-Abaire script Good People, which ran to high praise last fall and bears an interesting sort of sideways resemblance to Motherfucker. For another, Guirgis's long-windedness has partly to do with the fact that he's trying, passionately, to home in on one of the great, aching paradoxes of human nature: how good souls can be motherfuckers and vice versa and everything in between and even against their own best interests at any given moment, negating themselves at each turn and rationalizing the whole mess just to keep hope alive. "Do I contradict myself?" Walt Whitman asked, knowing the answer. "Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)" Guirgis might just add, At least until my options run out.

And not least of all I recommend it because of the talent on display. John Ortiz makes an engaging Jackie, lying to himself with a lumpen charm. Gary Perez is a hoot as Jackie's cousin Julio, a gay bodybuilding health-nut yogi with a violent streak and a female wife, who manages nevertheless to be the most centered character onstage. Local up-and-comer Sandra Delgado kills, just short of literally, as Veronica. The star attraction, Jimmy Smits, can be deeply creepy now and then as Jackie's AA sponsor, Ralph, but he can also be frustratingly opaque. And if somehow you get bored with the human drama, you can watch the moving parts of Todd Rosenthal's clever but noisy set as it whirs any of three locations into place.

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