There are two obvious topics that theatergoers and critics bring up when discussing The Motherf**cker With the Hat, the new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis. The first is obvious: the unprintable title, which one assumes might be a gimmick strong enough to draw in a crowd expecting an edgy, quirky comedy. That has not, apparently, been the case; box office reports have indicated that the play’s title — stylized with asterisks even in the Playbill — has proven to be a liability when it comes to publicity (the TV spots even omit the second half of that dirty word, suggesting that the titular headpiece belongs to an old lady). The other draw then would be stand-up comic Chris Rock, who makes his Broadway debut. But the rest of the show’s cast and creative team truly outshine the top-billing star and the show’s pretentiously gritty title.
Bobby Cannavale stars as Jackie, a newly sober ex-drug dealer recently released from prison. The play opens as Jackie comes home to the apartment he shares with his girlfriend Veronica (played with equal notes of bravado and frailty by Elizabeth Rodriguez), and it is on a table in their room that he discovers the hat of the title, and his immediate accusation of Veronica’s infidelity sparks the first of many emotional shouting matches that take place on stage in the brief span of a hour and a half. The loud, abusive exchanges between Jackie and Veronica are the crux of the play and perhaps the most entertaining, and Cannavale and Rodriguez’s somewhat strained voices are proof of the performances’ physical impact on the cast.
Jackie finds refuge in Rock’s Ralph D., Jackie’s best friend and AA sponsor. Rock plays Ralph as if he were delivering one of his familiar stand-up bits; he is certainly the most comfortable on stage when he is playing Chris Rock, and while his cast mates seamlessly disappear into their characters, he stands out as the movie star on stage, attempting to morph his supporting role into a lead. To Cannavale’s hotheaded Jackie, Rock’s Ralph is a seemingly sensible role model — that is until we learn that he is the owner of the hat and has betrayed his friend’s trust.
Thus begins another slew of verbal assaults, this time between Jackie and Ralph; unlike the fights between Jackie and Veronica, the men’s debates are more ideological. Ralph, who is unapologetic about sleeping with his friend’s girlfriend and cheating on his wife, argues that the necessity of his sober lifestyle is the only rule not worth breaking, and his dismissive attitude toward Veronica (who still uses cocaine) proves that sobriety has become his new addiction and the root for his self-centered behavior. Jackie, who still dabbles in drink and drugs, realizes that the influence other people have on each other might be as grave as that of controlled substances.
Rounding out the cast is Yul Vázquez (co-artistic director and founding member of LAByrinth Theater Company, of which Cannavale, Rodriquez, and Guirgis are also members) as Jackie’s possibly bisexual (it is both unclear and unnecessary) cousin Julio and Annabella Sciorra as Victoria, Ralph’s soon-to-be estranged wife. Sciorra, who makes her Broadway debut, may be shining star of the show; her role is certainly the subtlest, and she has the benefit of playing the most likeable character in the play. Unfortunately Sciorra (along with Rock) were passed over at this year’s Tony Awards, while the deserving Cannavale and Rodriguez both picked up nominations (as well as the surprising nod for Vázquez, whose flat portrayal of Julio serves as a somewhat distracting comic relief in what is already technically a comedy).
Like most character studies of addicts like those in The Motherf**cker With the Hat, Guirgis’s play is a bit overwrought and overwritten. While the turns of phrase coming from Ralph and Victoria’s characters seem believable, the vocabulary and fast-paced deep thoughts thrown about between Bobby and Veronica feel completely unnatural given their assumed levels of education and varied states of sobriety. And while Guirgis’s study of the relationships affected by addiction and narcissism is fascinating, it is the production itself that excels on stage. Superbly directed by Steppenwolf ensemble member Anna D. Shapiro (Tony-winner for August: Osage County, a far better play in which drug addicts scream at each other), the play features brilliant scenic design by Todd Rosenthal (who also picked up a Tony for his three-story set in August). Half of the stage includes a revolving kitchen set-up, carefully moving the audience from one New York City apartment to the next in a feat that is much more impressive than gimmicky. The slightly lit scene changes feature furniture flipping up from the floors and out of the walls, creating a subtext of their own: the walls that confine these poor folks as they scream and claw at each other seem to have a mind of their own, and they react to those verbal attacks as often and as frailly as the characters themselves, only sometimes breaking to expose what is beneath the surface.