Wanna spend the evening with some intensely troubled but deeply funny substance abusers? Have I got a play for you — "The Motherf- with the Hat," starring Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale as New York City 12-steppers.
A paean to love, friendship, betrayal, bad behavior and co-dependency, with a scathing toast to Alcoholics Anonymous, this rapid-fire work delivers plenty of voyeuristic thrills over 100 minutes. But fresh insights and illuminations on its themes are in far shorter supply.
Downtown dramatist Stephen Adly Guirgis, co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company, makes his Broadway debut with this dark comedy at the Schoenfeld. In "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train," "Little Flower of East Orange" and other earlier works, Guirgis showed a fascination for colorful down-and-outers and a talent for raw street-smart language.
The unprintable title hints at the streaming profanities and graphic sexual references to come. As such, the design team has created a fittingly gritty world. Mimi O'Donnell's clothes are aptly off-the-rack; Donald Holder's lighting is broody, and Todd Rosenthal's "Transformers"-like set flips and unfolds to evoke a trio of homes.
"Will & Grace" alum Cannavale plays Jackie, an ex-con and former druggie struggling to get his life together. His hot-to-trot cokehead girlfriend, Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who he's loved since they were teenagers, makes that exponentially harder.
Rock portrays Jackie's AA sponsor Ralph D., an amoral smooth talker with a rocky marriage to Victoria (Annabella Sciorra), who's also in recovery. Yul Vazquez is Jackie's sex-junkie cousin Julio. All five are drawn into a volatile vortex when Jackie finds a man's hat at Veronica's apartment and suspects she's having an affair. Whose hat? That'd be a spoiler.
Guirgis' vivid writing packs visceral wallops, but at times sounds artificial, like setups for punch lines. Struggling for a way to cap his "Hat," his late showdown between Jackie and Ralph rings like a low-life sitcom.
Director Anna D. Shapiro, a Tony winner for "August: Osage County," succeeds in matching the intensity of the writing with the performances.
Rodriguez brings dangerous sex appeal as the fevered Veronica, while Sciorra is solid and sympathetic as Ralph D.'s long-suffering wife. Vazquez is endearing as the macho-acting but deeply sensitive oddball cousin.
Cannavale's work is outstanding. With veins popping in his neck and a body language of tics and anxieties, he stunningly conveys a man fighting demons within and without; one day at a time never looked so daunting.
It would seem that the X-rated- ranting Ralph D. would make a good fit for Rock, but it works against him. Rock gives the character a good shot, but when he delivers Ralph D.'s lines in his trademark grunts and high-pitched voice, it's too close to what's become his own comic specialty. He not only draws unintentional laughs, but some audience members spoke back to him.
Goes to show — sometimes, it's fame that's a "Motherf-."
In his Broadway debut, Chris Rock plays Ralph D., the AA sponsor of Bobby Cannavale's Jackie. They share some heavy scenes -- red-blooded, profanity-laden bouts -- but Rock is a lightweight: The more experienced, more assured Cannavale knocks him out without even trying.
This is a big problem because Stephen Adly Guirgis' new dark comedy, "The Motherf**ker with the Hat," pivots on the evolving relationship between the two. Rock's tentative performance creates an imbalance that throws the show out of whack.
Guirgis, co-artistic director of the downtown company LAByrinth and author of several acclaimed plays ("Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" among them), gives us a clash between romantics and cynics, and it's clear whose side he's on. But Rock's lack of confidence makes the confrontation less affecting than it should be.
At the beginning, the luckless Jackie seems to have turned a corner: Out on parole and sober, he's just landed a job. He's about to celebrate with his druggie, motor-mouth girlfriend, Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), when he sees a hat -- not his own -- in her room and suspects she's having an affair.
This is enough pressure to send Jackie running to his sponsor.
That would be Ralph, a seeming goody-two-shoes who asks his wife, Victoria (Annabella Sciorra, "The Sopranos"), to "blender up my sponsee a nice nutritional beverage," and talks happily about yoga, archery and French lessons.
"My life isn't about bulls - - t and heartache no more," he tells Jackie, "and yours doesn't have to be either."
Rock is adequate in that early scene, but the more we learn about Ralph, the more the comedian's out of his depth. His one-note interpretation fails to exploit the full implications of Ralph's philosophy: that sobriety somehow gives you a free pass.
After "August: Osage County," director Anna D. Shapiro confirms her talent for handling both clever sets -- this one's a rotating marvel by Todd Rosenthal -- and volatile yell-a-thons.
And it takes confidence and skill not to be overwhelmed by Guirgis' hyperactive and often very funny writing. Cannavale, Rodriguez and Yul Vázquez -- hilarious as Cousin Julio, a health nut with a fondness for Jean-Claude Van Damme -- are completely attuned to the writer's uber-New York flow, reveling in its brash musicality.
Sadly, they're not the ones people are paying to see.
The play that dare not speak its name turns out to have a lot to say. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s vibrant and surprisingly serious new comedy opened on Monday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater under a title that cannot be printed in most daily newspapers or mentioned on network television.
This is vexing for those of us who would like to extol the virtues of “The ___________ With the Hat,” at least in public. (The title also seems to have created problems for the people trying to publicize the play.) This is by far the most accomplished and affecting work from the gifted Mr. Guirgis, a prolific and erratic chronicler of marginal lives (“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” “Our Lady of 121st Street”). But I’ll admit that upon first hearing the name of his play, I thought irritably, “How the ___ am I going to write about it?” As you see, I have already devoted much space-consuming ink to my quandary.
But you know, the title really is the right one for this fast and furious study of lives in collision, which takes place in New York City at the intersection of love and hate. The characters portrayed by a marvelous, intensely focused five-member ensemble — including the stand-up comic Chris Rock, in a solid Broadway debut, and a blazingly good Bobby Cannavale — are always striving for a mot juste to explain their less than clear-cut feelings.
And sure enough, the unmentionable noun in this play’s title carries exactly the weight of bewilderment, anger and awe with which all the characters regard one another. In “Hat” people are infuriating mysteries, even to themselves. But that doesn’t stop them from trying to come up with precise words that might define their ambivalent relationships and their own ever-elusive identities.
You could even say that “Hat,” directed with fire and tenderness by Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”), is about both the inadequacy and necessity of language, which here includes assaultive bombardments of insults, the zippy slogans of television commercials and the orotund pronouncements of self-help manuals. (The dialogue is often choice, but there are very few lines I can quote in their entirety.) But that’s not a very sexy way to describe this show, is it?
So let me say instead that “Hat” is a sort of contemporary, scabrous variation on “The Honeymooners,” that classic sitcom about blue-collar friends and spouses getting on one another’s nerves, starring Jackie Gleason. (Mr. Rock’s character, like Mr. Gleason’s, happens to be named Ralph, and Mr. Cannavale’s is called Jackie.) Of course irritation can reach extra-incendiary levels when it’s fueled by substances that Ralph Kramden had probably never heard of, like crack cocaine.
Mood-altering substances have irrevocably shaped the lives of the characters in “Hat,” who are all users and abusers, or former users or abusers, or, quite possibly, both. (Nothing in “Hat” is entirely either/or.) Jackie is a onetime dealer, newly released from prison and trying to stay sober. This isn’t easy, given that Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), his girlfriend, still snorts the white stuff and puffs on crack pipes with the unthinking casualness of someone chewing gum.
So Jackie relies heavily on the counsel of Ralph D., his sponsor in a 12-step program and a man who talks the talk of self-empowerment with buttery smoothness. It is Ralph and his wife, Victoria (Annabella Sciorra), to whom Jackie turns after he spots a hat that does not belong to him in the residential hotel room that he shares with Veronica.
That hat sure doesn’t smell like Jackie (he sniffs it with a beagle’s avidity), nor do the sheets on the bed, which have a distinctly masculine pong. Veronica swears she hasn’t been with anybody else, but then people are always lying in “Hat.” Except that they’re not — I mean, not in their heart of hearts, since truth and lies are a matter of perception, right?
As for big emotions like love or even friendship, forget about trying to pin them down. Just ask Julio (Yul Vázquez, hilarious), who may or may not be gay, and who on different occasions tells Jackie, his cousin, that a) he never liked him, and b) he always loved him. Both declarations are equally convincing and equally well supported by evidentiary detail.
These characters are all alike in that they are all contradictory. But they are contradictory in their own, specifically defined ways. The three living spaces that Jackie moves among — belonging to Veronica, to Julio and to Ralph and Victoria — are contrasting gems of self-portraiture. (Todd Rosenthal is the set designer.)
This is clear, above all, in how they talk, in the references and rhythms of their speech. As in the plays of David Mamet and Harold Pinter (and for that matter, William Shakespeare), whoever has the most persuasive line of patter has the power, even when someone else is holding a revolver or flexing a mighty pair of biceps.
For much of the play the power belongs to Ralph, who wields phrases like “the cycle of self-sabotage” in the style of a pistol-twirling gunslinger. As a professional stand-up seducer (which even insult comics have to be), Mr. Rock fits the part effortlessly. (You can easily imagine Ralph as a spellbinder when he testifies at support group meetings.) And Ralph’s straightforward confidence makes his logic-twisting all the more disarming.
Victoria has finally awakened from Ralph’s linguistic spell, and Ms. Sciorra (so memorably deranged on “The Sopranos”) registers this disenchantment with a careful balance of dignity and self-abasement. A similarly delicate admixture infuses Mr. Vázquez’s portrayal of the health-food-pushing, revenge-ready Julio, who uses “Van Damme ” as a verb. It’s a wonderfully cool comic performance that avoids the temptations of sitcom pandering. (Those temptations, for the record, are offered by the script, and Ms. Shapiro and her cast deserve much credit for avoiding them.)
But the broken, jagged heart of this production belongs to Ms. Rodriguez and Mr. Cannavale, who turn their characters’ relationship into a bruising, tragicomic apache dance of love, betrayal and indecision. (You may find yourself thinking of the sexual wrestling matches of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” and the early plays of John Patrick Shanley.)
Ms. Rodriguez’s Veronica is a sleekly feral amalgam of domesticity and destructiveness. And Mr. Cannavale, in his best work to date, exudes the magnified emotional presence you associate with verismo opera. That Jackie’s emotions, like those of everyone in “Hat,” are a muddle doesn’t mean that they don’t burn clear, or bright enough to scorch.
"Funny how people can be more than one thing," a character observes toward the end of The Mother —————— With the Hat (* * * ½ out of four), acclaimed playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis' first Broadway outing.
Funny indeed — not to mention surprising, disturbing and poignant. All of which are qualities that apply to this predictably dark, rich comedy, which opened Monday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.
Like previous works such as Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train and Our Lady of 121st Street, Hat finds the New York City-bred Guirgis' eye trained keenly and unsparingly on the underbelly of urban life. Jackie, played by Bobby Cannavale, is a parolee and recovering alcoholic grappling with his own demons and those of his longtime girlfriend, Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), an active substance abuser.
Ralph D., portrayed by Chris Rock— also making his Broadway debut — is the sponsor monitoring Jackie's progress. Affable but full of advice that can verge on sermonizing, Ralph expresses seemingly genuine concern for his "sponsee," much of it focused on Veronica. "Your girl — she's a wild animal," he tells Jackie, inserting a word that, like others in the text (and title), can't be printed here.
But first impressions, and second and third ones, can be deceiving in Hat. As revelations about Jackie and Veronica's history and Ralph's own personal life pour forth, Guirgis both flirts with and defies our preconceived notions about how social and moral struggles can define people. His characters are too refreshingly, frustratingly human to pin down, or write off.
Director Anna D. Shapiro, who with August: Osage County proved her flair for making dysfunction both wrenchingly real and hilarious, helps the excellent cast parlay those contradictions into first-rate entertainment. Cannavale is a ferociously compelling Jackie, embracing the character's pain and his flaws but also conveying a certain rough dignity.
Rock proves both a bold and canny choice for Ralph, a less sympathetic figure. More likable and less palpably ego-driven than many comedians of his generation, Rock doesn't exude the kind of crass narcissism that the sponsor eventually reveals. But he brings to the part, in addition to the expert comic punch you'd expect, a cool joviality that actually makes Ralph's lack of true empathy even creepier.
The women on stage aren't outmatched by the male stars. Rodriguez plays the feisty but self-destructive Veronica with a blazing authenticity, so that her toughness and tenderness strike us with equal force. As Ralph's wife, Victoria, Annabella Sciorra does more of a slow melt, gradually letting us see the suffering behind her hardened exterior.
Yul Vazquez is delightfully droll as Jackie's eccentric cousin Julio, who juggles cooking and hair-care tips with references to Jean-Claude Van Damme. But Julio's no mere clown; his utter devotion to Jackie may help save the latter's life.
By not putting characters or their dilemmas in neat boxes, Guirgis gives us, in Hat, a slice of hard life that's as provocative as it is absorbing.
Theatergoers familiar with the work of Stephen Adly Guirgis know that the gigawatt expletive embedded in the title of his latest play is one of his favorite words—on stage, anyway. Whether the public at large will feel comfortable seeing it on a marquee is an open question. Broadway is a scary place to open a straight play, especially one whose name can't be said out loud on network TV. It stands to reason that "The Motherf**cker With the Hat" (to give the play its official, double-asterisked title) should have done poorly in previews, the buzz-inducing presence of Chris Rock notwithstanding. But even though the title is too clever by half, Mr. Guirgis's play is buzzworthy in its own right. It's tight, smart and splendidly well-made, a tough-minded, unromantically romantic comedy that keeps you laughing, then sends you home thinking.
"Hat" (let's leave it at that) is about two working-class couples who are too close for comfort. Jackie (Bobby Cannavale), a violent hothead who just got out of jail and is now trying to get clean and sober, is crazy about Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who has an equally short fuse but has yet to discover the joys of sobriety. Ralph D. (Mr. Rock), Jackie's sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous, is a fast-talking scamster whose long-suffering wife (Annabella Sciorra) knows what he's up to and has had it up to here. When Jackie finds a strange man's hat in the grungy apartment that he shares with Veronica, all hell breaks loose. To say more would be to give the game away, but rest assured that you won't get even a half-step ahead of Mr. Guirgis, who deals a steady stream of surprising cards all evening long.
What makes "Hat" more than just a foul-mouthed, fast-moving farce is that Mr. Guirgis's real subject turns out to be moral relativism. The impeccably sober Ralph D., who has swapped booze for fluorescent-colored nutritional beverages, preaches the gospel of AA with a convert's fervor, yet it doesn't stop him from doing whatever he wants to whomever he wants. Jackie, by contrast, has yet to master his self-destructive impulses, but at least he knows that the point of getting sober is not to become more efficient at taking advantage of other people: "Your—whaddyacallit—your world view? It ain't mine. And the day it is, that's the day I shoot myself in the head. I didn't get clean to live like that."
Mr. Rock has never acted in a stage play, and his inexperience shows—he's a bit stiff at times—but you can see that he's well on his way to getting where he wants to go. His colleagues are stunningly good, especially Mr. Cannavale, who has the biggest part and makes the most of it. Yul Vázquez is a hoot as Julio, Jackie's effeminate-but-straight cousin, and Ms. Sciorra is utterly convincing as Mr. Rock's wronged wife. As for Ms. Rodriguez, she's as hot as a blowtorch at high noon. Anna D. Shapiro, the Chicago-based director who staged "August: Osage County," keeps "Hat" charging along, aided by Todd Rosenthal's quick-change set, which is a joy to behold. Terence Blanchard's funky incidental music heightens the production's hard-edged urban feel . . . but you get the idea, right? "Hat" is, or ought to be, a winner. It even has the blessed virtue of brevity (an hour and 40 minutes with no intermission).
Don't let the stupid title put you off. If you do, you'll miss one of the best new plays to come to Broadway in ages.