Playwright: Steven Adly Guirgis. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; www.steppenwolf.org; $20-$86. Runs through: March 3
For some substance abusers, the drug itself is the sole obstacle to social productivity. For others, their palliation of choice is what allows them to function under stressful environmental conditions. More often, however, the dependency merely camouflages what really ails the cripple in need of a crutch so that, even when detoxed, the aberrant behavior continues until the circumstances underlying it are resolvedchiefly, the self-serving image of themselves as unjustly persecuted innocents in a hostile universe.
Stephen Adly Guirgis' play introduces us to all three kinds of addicts. Barrio-bred Jackie, following his release from jail and renunciation of alcohol, foresees a happy future with his beloved Veronica, whose anger, sustained by an occasional snort of coke, is her defense against emotional exploitation. Confronted with evidence of her infidelity, Jackie turns to Ralph, his AA sponsor, for advice. Ah, but this mentor's exemplary marriage conceals a dissatisfied wife chafing under her husband's conviction that his clean-and-sober status absolves him of ethical lapses denied to less virtuous men.
When a demon is exorcised, what then fills the void left by its absence? Is it fair to ask a chronic manipulator to put aside his stratagems just because his tools have changed? The dramatic flow in the final scenes may confer upon Ralph the role of raisonneur, laying it on the line to a disillusioned Jackie, but when one argument fails to convince his charge that the world is bred of cynical users and the righteous path fraught with ennui, he initiates another without missing a beat. If we are to accept Ralph's authority, sandbagged as it is with the rhetoric of rehab, simply because he's the "good guy," what are we to make of Jackie's gentle cousin Julio, who drinksnot to excessand whose health-and-fitness regimen empowers him to kick the ass of anybody calling him a sissy?
Exacerbating this slippery moral orientation is Guirgis' dialogue, which comes at us thick and fast, laced with vulgaritythe "Hallelujah Chorus" of vulgarity, the "Battle Hymn Of The Republic" of vulgarity, the "Stars And Stripes Forever" of vulgaritysteeped in florid metaphorical euphony that you want to explicate as you would poetry. Playgoers capable of delving David Mamet's psychological dynamics, though, are unlikely to let a few expletives and Todd Rosenthal's spinning-unit scenery dazzle them into compliance.