“The Motherf**ker With the Hat” is a ballsy title for a ballsy play (at least of the commercial Broadway variety). Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the A Train, Our Lady of 121st Street), this witty and twisted domestic drama of sorts offers big laughs while chronicling the lives of some substance abusing New Yorkers. The script is finely executed, balancing bawdy language, one-liners and snarky humor with a certain sweetness surrounding leading man Jackie (Bobby Cannavale), an ex-con with a heart who really wants to do right. Cannavale’s portrayal of this well-intentioned recovering alcoholic conveys sympathy, despite some poor life choices. And this makes for genuinely entertaining storytelling.
Jackie is trying to clean up his life. He gets a job, takes his 12-step program seriously, and dreams of settling down with his girlfriend Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez). That is, until he discovers an anonymous hat on her table and vengeful fantasies begin to take over his otherwise noble ambitions. As Jackie attempts to “be nice,” a motto promoted by his new employer, he finds out that its sentiment is subjective. Seeking the help of his sponsor Ralph (Chris Rock), Ralph’s girlfriend Victoria (Annabella Sciorra) and his cousin Julio (Yul Vásquez), Jackie tries to grapple with his disintegrating relationship and his future, while maybe staying sober along the way.
Guirgis’s script is brilliantly constructed, with irreverent humor (“Leave the gun, take the empanadas”) and incongruity (Ralph is a nutritional beverage salesman). Although it’s heavy on expletives and talks of violence, it’s also rather silly and strangely understandable. Through screaming, fist-fights and threats, a sentimentality arises; Guirgis’s use of humor encourages a mighty engaging unfolding of this otherwise dire plot.
The production itself serves as a successful vehicle for the story, although it never let me fully escape into its world and this detracted from my overall experience; I was consistently aware I was watching a play. I would love to see The Motherf**ker with the Hat in a smaller, more intimate space, without the unavoidable Broadway gloss a gilded theatre mists over its stage.
The performances are all adequate as well, with the five person cast working their collective butts off to keep the energy consistently heightened. Cannavale is the consummate Jackie: sincere and well-intentioned, yet unavoidably ill-fated. Everyone else commits fully, conveying hypocritical humor and receiving lots of well-earned laughs, but they feel a little like caricatures, as opposed to Jackie’s fully fleshed-out, tortured soul. To be fair, I could have seen an off night – a technical error stopped the show, and the cast seemed to be grappling with laryngitis. However, as much as I could indulge in the words themselves, I never lost myself in the action happening on stage.
The Motherf**ker With the Hat is a highly comedic frolic into the dysfunctional reality of some potentially well-meaning though largely self-destructive individuals. Guirgis’s writing and Cannavale’s performance are worth the price of admission alone, and the rest of the cast each shine in pitch-perfect moments. But sit close, if you can, because the spectacle is in the story, not the production.
(The Motherf**ker With the Hat plays at the Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th Street, in a limited engagement through June 26, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays at 7PM, Wednesdays at 2PM and 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2PM and 8PM and Sundays at 3PM. Tickets are $66.50-$131.50 and are available at telecharge.com. For more show info visit themfwiththehat.com.)