The Motherf**ker With the Hat: Review

Bobby Cannavale and Chris Rock
Chris Rock's Broadway debut notwithstanding, the main event here is a terrific performance from Bobby Cannavale.

Chris Rock stars alongside Bobby Cannavale in Stephen Adly Guirgis' comedy about a recovering alcoholic who suspects his girlfriend of infidelity.

NEW YORK – Chris Rock does Chris Rock entertainingly in The Mother f**ker With the Hat, but Stephen Adly Guirgis’ equal parts funny, abrasive and tender new play belongs to Bobby Cannavale.

An odd fit for Broadway, this latest work from one of the co-artistic directors of the LAByrinth Theater Company is steeped in that company’s trademark style, notably a default setting for its characters of high-decibel abuse and hectoring belligerence. That doesn’t make these folks an especially affable bunch, though Cannavale’s character steadily engenders affection, and Yul Vazquez is irresistible in a tasty supporting role.

The prickly comedy is about love, fidelity, friendship and addiction. Guirgis takes amusing swipes at the 12-step psychological doctrines of recovery programs, and how their sanctimonious adherents can justify all kinds of self-serving, duplicitous behavior.

Recently released on parole from a prison sentence for drug-dealing, recovering alcoholic Jackie (Cannavale) is attending AA meetings, conferring with his sponsor Ralph D. (Rock) and generally trying to stay clean.

Having secured a legitimate job, he turns up at the grungy apartment he shares with Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) to celebrate and map out a golden future for the two of them. His girlfriend off and on since the eighth grade, Veronica is a firecracker with a mouth like Joe Pesci in a Martin Scorsese movie. She has a major coke habit, and no urge to give up any time soon. Jackie’s plan to celebrate his fresh start with some spectacular sex gets put on hold when he sees a man’s hat on a table and becomes convinced Veronica has been cheating on him.

While it’s unprintable in the consumer press, the play’s title is a perfect fit. Paranoid, enraged and irrational, Jackie spirals out of control as he attempts to sniff out the owner of the hat. He takes refuge on the couch at Ralph’s place, seeking support from his Puerto Rican cousin Julio (Vazquez). But the truth, when he discovers it, brings painful realizations about the limits of friendship and trust. “Nobody knows nobody,” says Jackie in his moment of reckoning.

Playing a big-hearted lug, Cannavale’s performance is what holds the play together as Jackie struggles to stay off booze and keep hold of his moral compass. As its title suggests, Motherf**ker comes on with a lot of tough-talking bravado and wild profanity. Underneath that, however, it’s a wistful story of a couple who have loved each other almost all their lives, but can’t keep it together. Cannavale’s Jackie bounces from goofy exhibitions of romantic ardor to volatile explosions to wounded-puppy vulnerability to genuine pain, always putting his own unique spin on Guirgis’ virtuoso dialogue.

Vazquez’s sly line readings are no less inventive. He’s like a hybrid of Hank Azaria and Sofia Vergara, and his scenes with Cannavale have so much spark, you start wishing someone would cook up a sitcom for this odd couple. Julio is another kind of addict, into health food, vitamins and body culture. Fastidious in his appearance and ambiguous in his sexuality, he’s surrounded on Todd Rosenthal’s set by a riot of colorful flora, adding to the impression of him as an exotic bloom. While he’s loyal to Jackie, that loyalty comes on Julio’s terms.

If Rodriguez is too shy about showing the softness beneath Veronica’s hard edges, she has the attitude, the looks and the intensity to put the character across. But Guirgis’ writing is not at its best with the women. Annabella Sciorra gets a thankless job with Ralph’s bitterly resentful wife, another recovering addict, who’s either spewing bile or self-pity.

That leaves Rock. His delivery is predictably sharp, but for a comic who picked up where Richard Pryor left off, he’s a little low-energy. While Ralph is all slick talk and calculated charm, Rock seems tentative in the role, failing to convey the dark side of a scammer operating entirely according to his own agenda. And while he lands plenty of laugh lines, Ralph’s big cards-on-the-table talk to Jackie doesn’t add up to much.

In some ways, Guirgis seems to be writing to order, and not in the more sprawling, restlessly interrogative style that is his signature. His previous work has frequently been overreaching but always ambitious. This is a more modest, less philosophically inclined play than his earlier works such as Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, Our Lady of 121st Street or The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.

Director Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County) keeps the action punchy and orchestrates some of the slinkiest scene changes in recent memory, as walls spin and sofas somersault, accompanied by Terence Blanchard’s coolly insinuating music. Rosenthal’s design creates three distinct apartments that reflect their inhabitants. But the tight playing space is surrounded by a vast cityscape skeleton that doesn’t add much, beyond the impression that this is a small play in a big production.

Venue: Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, New York (through June 26)
Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Chris Rock, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Annabella Sciorra, Yul Vazquez
Playwright: Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director: Anna D. Shapiro
Set designer: Todd Rosenthal
Costume designer: Mimi O’Donnell
Lighting designer: Donald Holder
Sound designer: Acme Sound Partners
Music: Terence Blanchard
Presented by Scott Rudin, Stuart Thompson, Public Theater Productions, LAByrinth Theater Company, Fabula Media Partners, Jean Doumanian, Ruth Hendel, Carl Mollenberg, Jon B. Platt, Tulchin Bartner/Jamie De Roy

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