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A CurtainUp Review
Motherf**ker With The Hat

Me and Veronica been 'Me & Veronica' off and on from since the 8th grade.— Jackie
Bobby Cannavale
Bobby Cannavale
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
> Unlike Romeo and Juliet's star-crossed love affair, Jackie and Veronica's middle-school love affair doesn't end with them dead. Neither is theirs a they lived happily ever after story, but then that's not something anyone familiar with the LABrytnth Theater Company's work would expect — especially if it's written by its co-artistic director and playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. That F-bomb in the title rat-a-tats its way throughout The Motherf**ker With the Hat often enough to make David Mamet's dialogue seem written by a choir boy.

Like characters in previous Guirgis plays, Jackie (Bobby Cannavale) and Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) come from the lower rung of the social ladder and probably didn't stay in school much beyond the eighth grade that marked the beginning of their fiery relationship. Life has been a bumpy ride for both. For him: alcoholism and a bent for violence that landed him in jail for a while. For her: A continuing battle with drugs. But their love, though not without bumps, has endured!

Actually when we first meet these volatile lovers in Veronica's dingy digs, a single room in a Times Square residential hotel things are looking up. Jackie's parole officer has steered him to a job as a porter with enough of a future for Jackie to think about "you and me plans." Both are thrilled with this happy turn of events and are ready to celebrate with some serious love making — until Jackie spots that hat of the title. Exhilaration gives way to suspicion, hostility, angry words (many requiring asterisks, as even their more tender exchanges do).

Watching that hat send Jackie's mistrustful instincts go into high gear is at first comic. But his fixation on the identity of that hat wearer and and why he visited Veronica turns the passionate long term Romeo into a raging Othello. The mystery about the hat sends him bouncing all over Manhattan -- to the Hell's Kitchen apartment of his AA sponsor, Ralph (Chris Rock), and Ralph's wife Victoria (Annabella Sciorra), and to the plant filled Washington Heights home of his cousin Julio (Yul Vazquez. Despite the comic irony in the Jackie/Veronica, Jackie/Ralph, Jackie/Julio and Jackie/Victoria interactions, the revelations that come with identifying the hat wearer are ultimately tragic reflections of the loneliness and despair that are all too integral to the less glamorous and fun side of life in a big city.

LABrynth Theater Company has enjoyed increasing prominence as a seedbed for playwrights with a bent for gritty plays, performed by a vibrant group of LAB actors. Bob Glaudini's Jack Goes Boating, one of the company's biggest hits during its Public Theater residency, was recently made into a film. Unlike The Motherf**ker With the Hat, Gaudini actually managed to combine LABrynthian grit with a sweet, happy ending romance, with Jack, unlike Guirgis's Jackie, a sweet, shlumpy romantic hero.

Guirgis, co-artistic director and one of the LAB's most prolific playwrights has had a number of his plays like Jesus Hopped the A Train and The Last Days of Judas Iscariut produced regionally and abroad. But The Motherf**ker With the Hat is his and the company's first venture to Broadway. The producer, aware of the risks of any straight play, let alone one with a title as likely to be off-putting as titillating and a focus on drug and alcohol abusing losers, understandably opted to hedge their bets by including nationally known Chris Rock in the cast. The fact that it's Rock's stage debut gave it that extra newsy punch, as did Robin Williams for Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Kiefer Sutherland for That Championship Season.

Rock certainly can't be faulted for not getting behind the show. He's tirelessly promoted the show with interviews and appearances on talk shows.

Though Rock the star on the publicity trail for the play and his appearance on the Gerald Schoenfeld stage is greeted with applause from audience members who bought their tickets to see him live, the star of The Motherf**ker With the Hat is Bobby Cannavale. Also frequently seen on small and big screen, but a seasoned stage actor (Mauritius and Hurlyburly) and LAB member. His Jackie is electrifyingly convincing: passionate and upbeat one minute, suspicious and trigger happy the next, and above all desperate and poignantly needy. Elizabeth Rodriguez is his match as the sexy Veronica who, like him, is one of life's walking wounded who most easily express feelings with expletives.

Unfortunately, Chris Rock underwhelms as Ralph D, Jackie's duplicitous sponsor and himself a former alcoholic who's substituted alcohol with health food but hasn't given up his habit of easily betraying his wife and friends. He delivers his lines clearly enough but without really getting a hold of the character his long suffering wife Victoria (Annabella Sciorra, excellent in the play's smallest role) defines as a "master dickhead" whose chief accomplishment is "a PHd in manipulation and self-loathing."

While Ralph is the play's only really despicable character, neither Jackie, Veronica, Ralph D or Victoria are people you'd want to spend a lot of time with. The only excelption is Jackie's Cousin Julio ( a terrific Yul Vazquez) who is both funny, likeable and smart. His explanation of why he will (and does) help Jackie avoid ending up in jail again in his dealings with the hateful owner of the forgotten hat is exemplified from this tidbit from his masterful declaration of loyalty and loathing: "The reason I said I'm doing this more for your Mother's memory than for you is because. . .I don't like you very much. And the reason I don't like you very much is because you think you're a nice guy, but really Jackie, you're not that nice. . .the space between who you think you are and who you actually are is pretty embarrassingly wide gap. . . You're not a good friend, and you're not a good relative. . .You're a user."

In addition to the box office geared casting of Chris Rock, the producers have also gone outside the LABrynth membership for a name brand directing and design team: Anna D. Shapiro and Todd Rosenthal, the director and scenic designer of the Pulitzer Prize winning August: Osage County. Shapiro has ably steered Guirgis' addiction-prone characters through the many combustible and quieter confrontations without letting the hat business become gimmicky. Todd Rosenthal has created a towering Osage like set for this play which really doesn't call for it. The playing area is cleverly structured for the three apartments in which the hat mystery unfolds and the long term romance unravels to swivel and pop up and down. But the giant El-structure overarching the various Manhattan locations, though quite stunning, serves little purpose except to give what is essentially a downtown play a Great White Way look. A simple sign stating where we are would be just as effective, if not more so.

Despite the good performances and the realistic take on love and honor in New York's lower depths, two questions will determine the success of LABrynth's uptown move: Is that title the sort of titillating tease that will attract or repel Broadway theater goers who are no longer shocked out of their socks by once taboo language but just bored with too much of it? Is the story of this potty-mouthed, grown-up Romeo and Juliet more appropriate to the downtown environment that has nourished LABrynth playwrights like Guirgis and where casting could have been 100% about fitting a part rather than provide ticket selling mass appeal? If these questions have you on the fence, the above comments should make it fairly clear that the title actually fits the plot, so that it's not just a tease. And neither does one weak acting link spoil the fact that this probably not for everyone play is nevertheless an additonal entry in a terrific season for new plays.

Motherf**Ker With The Hat by Adly Guirgis
Directed by Anna D. Shapiro
Cast: Bobby Cannavale (Jackie), Chris Rock (Ralph D.), Elizabeth Rodriguez (Veronica), Annabella Sciorra (Victoria) and Yul Vázquez (Cousin Julio)
Scenic design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume design: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting design: Donald Holder
Original music: Terence Blanchard
Stage Manager: Charles Means
Running Time: 80 minutes without an intermission
LABrynth and the Public Theatre at Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre 236 West 45th Street
From 3/22/11; opening 4/11/11 for 14-week engagement.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at April 9th press preview
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