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Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2011 Broadway Hit: The MotherF..ker With The Hat

In honor of the opening tonight of the revival of Jesus Hopped the A Train, and the launch of the 2017-2018 Signature residency of Stephen Adly Guirgis, below is my April, 2011 review of Guirgis’ only Broadway play so far: The Mothefucker With The Hat. He has since won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his Off-Broadway play, Between Riverside and Crazy.

Before Chris Rock even appeared on stage, “The MotherF**ker With The Hat,” despite its off-putting title, had me hooked. Veronica is talking on the phone with her mom, in-between snorts of cocaine, when Jackie enters with flowers and good news: He’s gotten a job, he’s ready for “grown-up plans,” “you and me plans.” Jackie and Veronica have been a couple since the eighth grade, even after he became an addict and a drug dealer and went to prison. He’s out, newly sober, and in love. She remains an addict, but has a good job in a salon. They are about to have sex when Jackie notices a man’s hat on the table…and the hat isn’t his.

If all this sounds grim, it isn’t. This first scene, exuberantly foul-mouthed, is so hilarious and touching that it is almost thrilling. Thanks for this belongs equally to playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and to the actors playing Jackie and Veronica – Bobby Cannaval and Elizabeth Rodriguez.

All three are members of LABrynth; another cast member of “Hat,” Yul Vazquez, is the co-artistic director with Guirgis of LABrynth. All four are making their Broadway debuts – which is Broadway’s gain.

LABrynth is a theater company two decades old that entered my list of the New York theaters that most matter when last year it presented / Tenn99, a three-day (52-hour) marathon staged reading of the complete works of Tennessee Williams – open to the public for free.

Given the company’s dedication, it should come as no surprise to those familiar with LABrynth’s work that the actors in “Hat” combine an authentic-feeling energy and rhythm from the streets with a mastery of stage technique. So strong are the characters of Jackie and Veronica, and the performers playing them, that “Hat” could probably have worked as a two-character play.

But it has five characters, and one of those characters is Ralph D., played by Chris Rock. Ralph D. is Jackie’s sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous and while he initially seems upright and well-meaning, he isn’t. His character drives much of the plot, or is at least the instrument of the major surprise (which I won’t reveal here).

The playwright surely also intends Ralph’s view of the world to provide a contrast to Jackie’s, and to provoke us to ponder, amidst all the profanity and the hilarity, some profound questions, such as: What is morality?

Chris Rock has Emmys and Grammys, has appeared in a slew of movies, but has never acted on stage before, and it shows. It is also possible he is miscast; a less innately likeable and more oleaginous performer might have worked better in the role of a character who is said to have earned “a Ph.d in manipulation and self- loathing.”

Still Rock deserves credit for some great comic moments. Attempting to prove that his life of sobriety and natural foods has been a panacea, Ralph asks Jackie “How old do you think I am?” “I dunno,” Jackie replies. “46?” “Okay,” Ralph says after a pause, “But do I look 46?” In that pause alone, Rock (who is in fact 46 and doesn’t look it) justifies his presence, and gives a glimpse into his potential as a stage performer.

However, ultimately, it little matters whether or not Rock is the weakest link in “Hat”, because, while his name may lure people to enter the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, there is much that will contribute to their being satisfied when they leave it. This includes the rest of the cast. Annabella Sciorra, who was so memorable as Tony’s suicidal mistress in The Sopranos, is, incredibly, making her Broadway debut as well, as Ralph’s resentful, vindictive wife. Yul Vazquez plays Jackie’s contradictory, ambivalent and ambiguous cousin Julio, who both resents him and is always there for him, supplying ancient memories of Jackie to give us a fuller sense of his complexity, and also helping Jackie to forget: When Jackie asks him to recount a drunken fight he had with Veronica, Julio replies: “God created blackouts for a reason.”

Anna D. Shapiro, who directed “August: Osage County,” is once again pitch perfect in the difficult task of combining comedy with serious drama, helping win our affection for characters whose ugly aspects are not sitcom safe. Todd Rosenthal’s set is a marvel of efficiency and insight. The several apartments we visit (via some cool automatic flipping and sliding and sinking) are dwarfed by an almost-abstract landscape, made up of fire escape, scaffolding and just a sliver of a skyscraper peeking through. And then there is the dialogue. “I’m not trying to make it like I’m a Saint,” Jackie says, “even though I’m straight up more or less not guilty.”

 

At the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis Directed by Anna D. Shapiro scenic design by Todd Rosenthal, costume design by Mimi O’Donnell, lighting design by Donald Holder, sound design by Acme Sound Partners and original music by Terence Blanchard. Cast: Bobby Cannavale (Jackie), Chris Rock (Ralph D.), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Veronica), Annabella Sciorra (Victoria) and Yul Vázquez (Cousin Julio). Running time: 100 minutes with no intermission

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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