As I noted in my photo journey summary of my NYC trip last weekend, the play I saw Friday night was the Tony Award winner for best drama — The Mother F____r with the Hat. Most of the reviews and the news stories generated by Chris Rock’s appearance in the play miss what I thought made it unique. Of all the plays and movies that have dealt with recovery from alcoholism, this show seemed the most realistic in showing that getting sober does not solve everything.
As a friend in recovery reminded me: “If you were a drunken horse’s ass, getting sober, without more, only means that you’re now a sober horse’s ass.” The play explores that truism.
Here’s a summary of the plot:
Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and Jackie (Bobby Cannavale) are lovers sharing a scruffy one-room Manhattan apartment. Jackie is out on parole and newly sober. When the play opens, Veronica is doing lines of coke while cleaning the apartment and talking to her mother on the phone. You can get a sense of the funny dialogue in the show from this excerpt of her conversation with her mother about her mother’s boy friend:
Ma? O.K., look, for the last time, my opinion, you’re still a good-lookin’ woman with a huge lovin’ heart and you’re not hard to please — clearly — but you’re dating a fuckin’ big-time loser with a head like a actual fuckin’ fish! . . . O.K., like, please, all’s I’m gonna say, Ma, when you see him tonight: Take a moment. Take a breath. 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?”
Jackie enters. He’s elated by the job he’s just started at Federal Express and gets ready to climb between the sheets with Veronica whom he’s known and loved since eighth grade, but then he notices a man’s hat sitting on a nearby table. The complications begin.
Consumed with jealousy and anger, Jackie goes to see his A.A. sponsor Ralph D. (Chris Rock in his first stage appearance). We meet Ralph’s frustrated, unhappy wife Victoria (Annabella Sciorra) who later tries to bed Jackie. As the plot unravels we learn that Ralph — seemingly a the good sponsor, chauffeuring Veronica to visit Jackie while he was in jail — was also taking her to a nearby drop-in motel.
As you can see, the plot resembles a soap opera. However, the witty dialogue keeps it moving and the audience laughing.
But for me the heart of the play was in the different views that Jackie, Ralph, and Veronica have on recovery from alcoholism.
Ralph says that getting sober and helping others get sober by sponsoring them in A.A. is all the character changing he’s going to do. For example, he’s always been a womanizer and he’s going to remain a womanizer. He warns Jackie that while it might be possible to make a lasting friendship with someone before age 25, after that everyone in the adult world is looking out only for themselves and all you have are acquaintances, not friends.
Jackie, on the other hand, has a vague, still-forming sense that just getting and staying sober is not enough.
The play makes it clear that while Ralph is a good A.A. sponsor, he’s a lousy human being. This is not an uncommon combo in the real world of recovery. The play also makes it clear that Veronica, while still using, is a better human being than Ralph for all his sobriety.
Veronica has an interesting take on recovery. At the end of the play, she is headed off to take her mother to an alcoholism rehab center. She knows she’d be better off if she weren’t using, but she’s not impressed by many of the recovering alcoholics she meets. She says:
In my book if giving up my substances means I am going to turn into a navel-gazing, self-satisfied clown like the fuckers I see in your meetings, then you what? — pass the joint, shake me a margarita, and kiss my ass.
The play isn’t a put-down of A.A. but rather a realistic portrayal of how complicated and difficult it is to struggle with both alcoholism and your other demons.
I can think of examples of my own that make the same point that is made in the play. For example, I have a friend who been in and out of recovery over the years. He gets put downs from some who have unbroken sobriety. Yet he is the better human being.
I’ve benefited greatly from getting sober in a recovery program. But it’s not a be-all-and-end-all.
I’ve not been as articulate as I’d like about this. I’d be very interested in input from others.