He's willing to eat pie. "When it's pies, you don't lie."

Washington Ensemble Theatre, in partnership with eSe Teatro and the Hansberry Project, has delivered a straightforward straight play. Sure a bit of raw dick trots out onstage, sure there's a saucy cuss in the title, but this Tony-nominated play from Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis feels more tabula rasa (grown-up?) than many of the company's previous offerings.

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It's no wonder that WET was drawn to the material: The script is bonkers funny, the language is fresh, and the tale is complex but tightly told. Jackie (played by Erwin Galán) is an ex-con who's trying to turn his life around. He's got a new job and an AA sponsor (Ralph D., played by Ali el-Gasseir), and he's trying to rebuild his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Veronica (Anna Lamadrid). But the modest castle he's trying to build in the sky starts to dissolve once he discovers evidence of Veronica's infidelity in the form of the aforementioned motherfucker's hat.

Even the play's lewd humor is structural. As a way to defuse tension during a fight that's going nowhere, for instance, Veronica suggests that she and Jackie go "eat some pie" at a local diner and hash out the issue of her supposed infidelity. There was some suggestion early on that Jackie wasn't exactly famous for going down on his partner, but now Jackie accepts. He's willing to eat pie. "When it's pies, you don't lie," he says. This bawdy pun is doing work—it signals that Jackie's ready not only to concede in the sack but ready to start questioning his idea of reality. He's convinced Veronica has cheated on him. He's smelled "Aqua Velva and dick" on the sheets. But, because he knows he's fucked up in the past, he's ready to question even his own sense of smell. Again, you get all this complex emotional information via a joke about cunnilingus. The joke isn't subtle, but the work it does is.

Everyone in the play is in different stages of recovery—from substances, from heartache, and from feeling deeply the black nothing at the center of everything—and no one's handling it particularly well. (Except for Cousin Julio, who's amazing, but we'll get to him later.) This is to say that Guirgis doesn't put a halo on Ralph D., the AA sponsor who apparently has his life together. Nor does he paint devil horns on the characters suffering from chemical addictions. Set designer Pete Rush and director Valerie Curtis-Newton smartly reinforce this fact in the stage design—all the characters seem to live within the same saffron-yellow walls, only the furniture changes up a bit. But for this play to hit with full emotional force, the acting has to be as nuanced as the characters. This unfortunately wasn't the case for the two leads.

Galán played Jackie too rigidly. He was turned up to 11 the whole time, and I felt as if I kept having to see past his Acting in order to connect with the character he was portraying. He projected the power and command of a field officer in a Shakespeare play—once more unto recovery, dear friends. This choice highlights the fact that a capacity for manic romance often reveals a capacity for physical violence—two character traits that define Jackie's charm and fatal flaw—but Galán's performance made it hard to see Jackie as a person capable of achieving the resolution he finds at the end.

Ditto Lamadrid's Veronica. Though Jackie's bellows dominate the stage, Veronica is the emotional core of the play. More than various drugs, she's addicted to Jackie's love, and Lamadrid's static performance didn't parallel Veronica's transformation in that relationship and thus didn't reveal the gut-wrenching pain (and power) in her final decision.

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El- Gasseir takes an act to warm up, but once his character, Ralph D., morphs from a health-juice-slurping, archery-class-taking, Big-Book-thumping success story into a complex and manipulative monster, he really digs in and gets nasty with it. Meg McLynn plays Victoria, Ralph D.'s long-suffering wife, as snippy, cold, and yet totally desperate. She wears the weariness of the whole play on her face, and nails it.

Moises Castro as Cousin Julio is a golden light of reason, humor, and good acting in this production. I liked him before I even saw him. (He begins offstage, shouting hilarious lines about the relative differences between the two kinds of empanadas he's cooking up.) I liked Cousin Julio because you're supposed to like Cousin Julio—he's the comic relief, compassionate for all the "right" reasons—but Castro plays his humor without winking and his sincerity without reaching. He brought out the better acting in Galán and whoever else he was onstage with. I want him to be in every play I see from now on. recommended

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