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Article updated: 1/10/2013 6:28 AM

Fine acting defines Steppenwolf's revival of urban 'Hat'

By Barbara Vitello

One thing about the provocative title of Stephen Adly Guirgis' "The (expletive) with the Hat," it minces no words.

"It announces itself," agreed Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf Theatre Company, who saw the play on Broadway and calls it a "great theatrical ride."

"You can't walk in surprised."

No indeed. Yet the Tony-nominated "Hat" caused a bit of an uproar when it opened on Broadway in 2011 under the direction of Steppenwolf ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro, Tony Award-winning director of "August: Osage County." Much of the controversy had to do with a title that cannot be uttered on most TV networks or radio stations or printed in daily newspapers.

Aside from some minor concerns about whether to include two asterisks or three in the offending work, Lavey says no such controversy surrounded Steppenwolf's production. It's a well-acted, hugely entertaining show directed with clear-eyed compassion by Shapiro, whose creative team includes set designer Todd Rosenthal and lighting designer Donald Holder from the Broadway production.

Still, those sensitive to profane language and mature content should heed the title, which Guirgis himself calls a disclaimer.

The rest of you may want to try on Guirgis' canny, funny and unflinching urban fable about addiction and sobriety, love and jealousy, trust and betrayal, family and what passes for friendship. Guirgis' writing has a kind of ghetto eloquence that is both fierce and affecting. His language is harsh. His characters are vivid, intriguing and all-too-human. They are unquestionably flawed. But there is more to recovering alcoholic Jackie, his coke-snorting girlfriend Veronica and his A.A. sponsor Ralph D. than is conveyed by the labels "addict" or "recovering addict." As Jackie observes, "people can be more than one thing." Which is in fact the message of this play, where a gentle man turns into Jean-Claude Van Damme to defend his kin, and a brutal street thug treats a childhood pal with kid gloves.

The action unfolds in three New York City apartments, accessed by a staircase with huge gaps that suggest a 12-step program incomplete, and located below the skeleton of a billboard sign. Rosenthal's ingeniously realized set flips and spins, transforming the stage from a crummy studio, to a dated but cozy plant-filled pad, to a middle-class home with a leather love seat and big screen TV.

It centers around Jackie (the terrific John Ortiz, whose vulnerable, insightful performance reveals a man warring with himself). He's a newly sober parolee looking to celebrate his new janitorial job with spitfire Veronica (a sharp-edged, emotionally exposed Sandra Delgado), a cocaine addict quick to anger and slow to forgive. Everything's great between the longtime lovers until Jackie notices a man's hat on the table that doesn't belong to him. Accusing Veronica of cheating on him, he storms off to the home of his A.A. sponsor Ralph D. (the cool, calculating Jimmy Smits, completely at home on the Steppenwolf stage). Ralph has 15 years of sobriety, a burgeoning nutritional beverage business and a wife Victoria (Sandra Marquez, whose long suffering is deeply felt).

Rounding out the quintet is Jackie's Cousin Julio, played by Gary Perez. If there is a moral center to this world where betrayal dominates, laissez-faire morality prevails and love and friendship are transitory, it is Cousin Julio. Perez's authentic, heartfelt performance of a man not embittered by a painful past is among the production's best. And that's saying something considering the strength of Shapiro's cast. Where a lesser actor might pan for comic relief, Perez mines gold from this slender, slightly effeminate man who has the heart of Van Damme. Physically, he may have a hard time kicking anyone's behind, but he believes he can. And so do we.

That said, Guirgis' "Hat" is imperfect. For all its flair, this talky play doesn't sustain the bravura that underscores the opening scenes. Perhaps the audience becomes accustomed to the playwright's profane patois, which after a while loses its luster. Still, I admire Guirgis for his structure, for the way he de-romanticizes sobriety (which does not, in fact, equal sainthood) and how he doesn't neatly tie up his provocatively titled urban tale.

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