Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 11, 2011
The Motherf**ker with the Hat 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. Original music by Terence Blanchard. Cast: Bobby Cannavale, Chris Rock, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Annabella Sciorra, Yul Vázquez.
No. But not because it’s not a worthy work. If this play, which has been directed by Anna D. Shapiro and stars Bobby Canavale and Chris Rock, the latter in his Broadway debut, does not delve as deep into searing emotions and questions of faith as Guirgis’s previous outings, it’s nonetheless an enjoyable and smartly constructed 100 minutes in the theatre. But it’s ultimately a completely conventional (if occasionally predictable) relationship comedy with a title that won’t exactly entice the large audiences who would conceivably be interested in it. Pushing the envelope is one thing; using it to give a paper cut to those who would probably otherwise like its contents is something else altogether.
The title phrase is invoked by Jackie (Cannavale) when, returning one evening to the apartment of his girlfriend, Veronica, he discovers a mysterious hat placed on a table. Jackie intuits that, between his visits, she may have been taking up with the guy downstairs who’s always seen sporting some outlandish hat. He explodes, and not without reason: He’s a recovering alcoholic, and recently spent over two years in prison for drugs, but is just starting to turn his life around with a new job, an inspirational new Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, and the hope that he and Veronica might be able to make permanent the on-again-off-again fling they’ve been conducting since the eighth grade.
Guirgis does not stop there, but instead continues to arrange and rearrange the relationships to map out enough deceptions, attractions, disappointments, and justifications to fill a full city — or at least a full-length play. (Because of how intertwined those twists and turns are with the story, no more will be revealed here.) It’s also expertly charted from a human standpoint: Guirgis implements no real heroes or villains — and even those who say and do terrible things (which, well, is pretty much everyone) have excellent rationales for their words and actions. For Guirgis, romance and whether it’s been sufficiently earned are issues that must constantly be reassessed, and the only way to lose them entirely is to convince yourself you don’t have to work to keep them.
With her staging (on an endlessly surprising, low-rent-looking apartment set by Todd Rosenthal), Shapiro blends humor with heartbreak and hopelessness as efficiently here as she did in Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County. And most of the actors are spot-on terrific. Cannavale unleashes some of his best stage work to date merging Jackie’s roiling rage with his lonely soul, Rodriguez is compellingly conflicted in fleshing out the many appetites of the not-so-innocent victim of Jackie’s anger, Vàzquez brings a tart reading to the devoted-yet-annoyed Julio, and Sciorra is in every way scintillating as the caged Victoria yearning to live the life she wants rather than the one Ralph dictates. Rock is the only weak link: He’s seriously outmatched by his much more experienced costars, and delivers a leaden, one-level performance that captures little of the compassion or passion of the tenacious Ralph, though his mien onstage is sufficiently calming to evoke the archetypal AA guru (thus setting up another trope for Guirgis to explode).
What neither Rock nor anyone else, from Guirgis on down, can communicate is what the incendiary title is supposed to achieve. It suggests an astringent, assaultive work that brings the language and discontent of the streets into a Broadway house, not an ordinary (if accomplished) jumble of petty personal squabbles that coalesce into a gentle but firm lesson about the entanglements of modern morality. In other words, by calling his play The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Guirgis alienates not just the people who don’t know this play is exactly what they’re looking for, but also those who come to the theater looking for something else. By any accounting, this is a play with a very bad title — which wouldn’t be so tragic if it weren’t also a good play.