Photo by Owen Carey

THE NICE OLD LADY handing out programs confirmed what play we were seeing. She smiled like nice old ladies do and spoke softly: "Mother... hat?" We nodded, and she handed us the program. The nice old lady was spending her Sunday afternoon supporting local theater, and good on her, and also it was very clear there was absolutely no way she was ever going to say the play's title—even as she sweetly handed us booklets emblazoned with "MOTHERFUCKER" in giant block letters.

It's easy for Portland's arts organizations to settle into routines that placate their subscribers; given that their subscribers are usually rich white geriatrics, usually this means playing it safe. Thankfully, The Motherfucker with the Hat doesn't play it safe: Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, it deals with relationships (and infidelity), and sobriety (and booze), and adults doing their best to solve problems like grownups (which usually means solving them like violent children).

With the help of his sponsor, Ralph (Victor Mack), Jackie (John San Nicolas) is staying clean and going straight, nailing down a job and starting to make long-term plans with his volatile girlfriend, Veronica (Diana DeLaCruz). Until, that is, he finds a man's hat in Veronica's apartment—a hat that isn't his. Sensing his just-put-together world starting to crack, Jackie sets out to keep everything from falling apart: Ranging across New York, his path takes him from Veronica's dingy studio to the bourgie apartment Ralph shares with his wife (Val Landrum) to the couch of his cousin, Julio (Gilberto Martin Del Campo).

As he jumps between his worlds, Jackie doesn't do a great job keeping his shit together, but The Motherfucker with a Hat does: Strong, likeable performances from San Nicolas, Mack, and Del Campo keep the characters grounded even as events spin out of control, while the show's constant backdrop—off-kilter red brick, coated in graffiti swiped from the era of Yo! MTV Raps—never lets you forget that in New York, the stakes always feel a little higher. But the best and most consistent thing about The Motherfucker with a Hat is this: For as much funny, frantic, and heavy stuff it concerns itself with, it never plays it safe. Guirgis' play is funny and surprising and its dialogue punches along with an angry rhythm; it's nice to see a Portland show that has some blood pumping through its veins.