'With the Hat' not your typical holiday treacle

| Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, 6:05 p.m.

“The (expletive) With the Hat,” a decidedly adult love story, offers an escape from the holiday season's usual sugar-coated theater fare.

Stephen Adly Guirgis' play, directed by Rich Keitel, is the latest from barebones productions. If the title wasn't enough to jog your memory, you might recall it as the play in which Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale starred on Broadway last year.

A swear jar onstage for charity would probably draw enough quarters to add a wing to the closest hospital.

This gritty story examines the addict's struggle against enablers, manipulation and self-destructive relationships.

Jackie (Patrick Jordan, the multitalented barebones founder and artistic director), recently released from jail, drug- and alcohol-free, is excited about his new job: “Yo, the best part? Career advancement!”

He's been with his girlfriend Veronica (petite, curly-haired Ruth Gamble, who gives as good as she gets) since they were kids. She still enjoys her addictions.

Love is in the air, until Joe notices a hat — like “Zorro leaving his ‘Z' all over the scene of the crime!” — and accuses Veronica of cheating on him.

And we're off.

A quick-fire, blistering argument ensues. Jackie heads off to his AA sponsor Ralph (Edwin Lee Gibson) to rant and rave. Ralph and trophy wife Victoria (Daina Michelle Griffith) invite him to stay at their apartment. He visits cousin Julio (Leandro Cano) to ask him to hide a gun. (“Leave the gun; take the empanadas.”)

The strong cast play well off each other in this fast-paced piece. We're drawn into the story and to each well-crafted character.

Veronica “cleans” by kicking clothes under the bed. Gay, soft-bodied cousin Julio volunteers to defend Jackie's honor: “Say the word and believe me — Van Damme will happen.”

Ralph is the charming nutrition-supplement salesman, a smug man with all the answers, who deftly maneuvers those around him. We hear how his wife, Victoria, in recovery, fell for him and gave up her lucrative Wall Street job. “I threw my life away because I thought I met my soulmate. And the truth is that there's no such thing.”

The language of 12-step programs is fully integrated in the dialogue. We learn about the Circle of Self-Sabotage. That the “Acceptance” passage can be found on page 449 in the big book. The importance of attending meetings.

As set designer, Douglas McDermott's three complete apartments, as different as the people who inhabit them, nimbly spin on- and off-stage between acts with minimal fuss.

It is unfortunate that “The (expletive) With the Hat” is billed as a comedy. Expectations of a laugh riot only lead to disappointment. Really, it's a poignant drama — worth seeing on its own merit — with comic relief.

So who was the blankety-blank with the hat? The mystery is revealed in a surprise twist well before the bittersweet conclusion.

Sally Quinn is deputy managing editor for features for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7885 or squinn@tribweb.com.

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