Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York City

The title “The Motherfucker with the Hat” is unusually raw and cheeky for a Broadway play, but it’s not that much of a stretch for Stephen Adly Guirgis. As resident playwright and artistic co-director of New York’s intrepid LAByrinth Theater Company, Guirgis has made a specialty of in-your-face, down-and-dirty, hilarious and heartbreaking slices of New York City life. Most of his plays have been directed by fellow company member Philip Seymour Hoffman and acted by the LAB’s kickass ensemble of high-powered, mostly black and Latino actors, which includes John Ortiz, now making a name for himself in movies and TV. The company usually hunkers down at the Public Theater, which is where “Hat” was originally supposed to go up, but when someone came up with the bright idea of casting comedian Chris Rock in a major role, the whole production moved to The (ahem) Great White Way, where celebs from outside theater appear to establish industry cred. (Also on Broadway right now: Robin Williams, Daniel Radcliffe, John Laroquette, Brooke Shields, Kathleen Turner, Dan Lauria, Kiefer Sutherland, Edie Falco, Ben Stiller, and Ellen Barkin.) So now a much bigger audience is getting exposure to Guirgis and company’s brand of no-holds-barred contemporary drama.

In case you didn’t guess from the title, “The Motherfucker with the Hat” is a love story. Jackie (a blazing performance by Bobby Cannavale), fresh out of prison and trying to make a go of AA with the help of his sponsor Ralph D (that would be Chris Rock), shares a crummy Times Square SRO with his childhood sweetheart Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), who loves drama almost as much as she likes sex and drugs. A fit of jealousy sends him into first into an act of lame-brain violence that requires clean-up assistance from his cousin Julio (the superb Yul Vazquez), a fastidious health-food merchant with a buff gym body and an unlikely wife whom we never meet, and then into the arms of Ralph’s wife Victoria (Annabella Sciorra), a former Wall Street analyst who met her husband in recovery and is now wondering what she was thinking.

Considering the skeeziness of the characters’ behavior and the brutality of their language, it’s astonishing that the play is not only hilarious but also heartbreaking, generous, and more truthful than almost any other play about two-timing, self-destructive addicts that I can think of. You could also say it’s a more honest depiction of the kind of fooling around that goes on in relationships than most people are willing to admit. No character gets a monopoly on perfidy or truth-telling either. Every time someone mounts a blistering attack on one character’s fucked-up behavior, that character bounces right back with an unexpected yet persuasive blurt of self-knowledge and/or bullshit detection. It’s like a speed-freak mash-up of “The Honeymooners” (Jackie and Ralph, hello!) and some cheesy telenovela, and it’s always threatening to veer into something cheap and shallow. Yet time and again the savvy playwright, his fierce actors, and their very shrewd director (Anna D. Shapiro, best-known for staging “August: Osage County”) navigate that tricky balancing act between theatrical bravado and recognizable human behavior. Not since David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” has a play delivered energetic profanity this fast and funny. And its combination of grit and sweetness, surprise and lyricism bring to mind the best of Martin McDonagh. 

Aside from Cannavale, who’s hands down the star of the show, Rodriguez is also amazing – just looking at her, you’d never think, “That is one crazy bitch,” but whew, the stuff that comes out of her is wild! And Vazquez, who is another founding member and co-director of LAByrinth, nails every moment of a beautifully written character; he avoids caricature by brilliantly underplaying Julio’s personality and delivering his sometimes rococo speeches as if they were mundane conversation. Sciorra’s role is underdrawn, making it hard for her to shine. Chris Rock acquits himself reasonably well, also erring on the side of underplaying, but he plays Ralph D. like a musician working from sheet music rather than sheer juice and confidence. I’m glad I saw him but I would have been just as happy to see his understudy, Ron Cephas Jones, another terrific longtime LAByrinth company member. 

Todd Rosenthal has designed an extremely tricky and impressive set on a revolve that incorporates three different play spaces, some of which have furniture that spin and turn on their own. At the performance I saw, the show ground to a halt in the midst of the second act because the revolve stalled out. It was up and running again in a couple of minutes with no harm done to the momentum of the play. I mention it only because such mechanical failures have made headlines when they happened at “Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark,” as if it’s some terrible failure on the part of the production, whereas in reality it goes with the territory of elaborate theatrical staging., April 20, 2011