“The Motherf**ker With the Hat” is Tops
By Isa Goldberg
That the cockeyed lives of drug addicts, alcoholics, and ex-cons can wake us to smell the roses is the idiosyncratic, albeit lyrical gift of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. His latest work, “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” stands out amidst this season’s new plays as an entertaining romantic comedy. Yet it speaks to us on a multitude of levels.
Admittedly, Guirgis’s earlier works left me in something of a haze. “Our Lady of 121st Street,” directed Off Broadway by Seymour Philip Hoffman, seemed more like a coloring book of Spanish Harlem than a play of complex characters and themes. Written in broad comic strokes, the story takes place in a Harlem funeral home where a crew of tempestuous characters arrives to mourn the loss of their beloved nun – quite literally her body has been stolen.
With “Hat,” Guirgis translates his themes about the downtrodden into a style that reflects his contemporaries: Sam Shepard and David Mamet. The characters’ open fisted brawling, blatantly despicable behaviors, and self-justifying bravura also bring to mind Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage.” Thankfully, Guirgis adds a lively gift for highly comic dialogue.
Here, in “Hat,” the characters burst out vividly with cartoon like exaggeration, still they appear truthful – there is a sense of inevitability about them. This is great terrain for the stand-up comedian Chris Rock. Ralph D. is a twelve-step sponsor, health food fanatic, and Jackie’s (Bobby Cannavale’s) most trusted friend. Unfortunately, he must have hocked his moral compass to a pawnshop; Ralph is a liar, a user, and most importantly a womanizer who holds little if any appeal. In this role, Rock is pathetically funny.
He is well matched by an outstanding ensemble of actors. Cannavale plays Jackie with the studied aggression that would seem to come easily to a freewheeling actor, known for his booming voice. But in spite of Jackie’s addictions, drug dealing, and volatile temperament (his primary prop is a gun), he suffers for loyalty, trust, and morality.
Motivated by his love for Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), he drives himself to such wild behaviors that he’s caused to pay the price of going to jail, once again. Elizabeth Rodriguez delivers a high- energy performance as the girlfriend. She is, on the face of it, a caricature of a coke-snorting sexy temptress, while on a deeper level she reveals herself to be a self-aware woman with a complex emotional reality.
The most outrageous character here is Yul Vazquez’s Cousin Julio – a real cut-out, a comic genius who calls himself a “mariposa.” While displaying all of the imaginable clichés about being a Hispanic gay man, Julio turns every conversation around to his wife and their marriage. His moral ambiguity makes a clever fulcrum for Jackie’s predicament. And Annabella Sciorra portrays Victoria, Ralph’s wife, with self righteous and confident defiance. There is something beguiling about her haughty independence.
Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”) directs this tightly knit ensemble, capturing the punchy street talk, bold emotions and high comedy of Guirgis’s material. In the end, it’s the romance that percolates beneath the overly aggressive repartee that makes this a wonderful feel good story. That it ends with the letter that Bobby leaves Elizabeth, and no one in the audience ever hears or sees, speaks to the predicament about the use and abuse of language.
At some point, the vulgar street talk fades; and what emerges is a warm and genuine experience that makes you feel as though you’re walking on air as you leave the theater.
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“The Motherf**ker With the Hat” is at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, through July 17th. Performances are Tuesday at 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with matinees on Wednesday and Saturday at 2 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. For tickets call Telecharge at 212-239-6200, visit Telecharge.com or go to the box office.