LAByrinth Theater Company, a primal stage force previously contained below 14th Street (at The Public, mostly) but occasionally rising to 17th (Union Square Theatre), boldly bolted to Broadway April 11 and quickly marked its new turf around the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre with a play by its current co-artistic director, Stephen Adly Guirgis, called The Motherf**ker With the Hat. And, as M-G-M advised patrons of Garbo's "Ninotchka" back in '39: "Don't Pronounce It . . . See It."
The play starts with a heavy shelling of these asterisks when Jackie (Bobby Cannavale), a drug-dealer fresh out of prison and brand-new to the American work force, comes home to sexually celebrate his gainful employment with his coke-snorting ever-lovin', Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez), only to spot the hat of a stranger on the premises — a sure sign of infidelity, he instantly deduces and goes blue-blazes ballistic on her. In search of advice or a gun, he goes to his AA sponsor, Ralph D. (Chris Rock), a slick scammer who puts the impotence of prayer to a quick test trying to quell Jackie's anger and then starts itemizing the pluses of sobriety (like archery lessons) — all this while fending off the barracuda bites of Victoria (Annabella Sciorra), a wife who's had it up to here with his helium.
And so it grows. The fever pitch established in the opening scene continued for the next 93 minutes, and virtually every one of the scenes that followed was rewarded with applause (which seemed more plausible than that on most opening nights).
The action is spread over three New York City apartments, each one drearier than the last, but these pop painlessly and swiftly into place, "Transformers"-like, thanks to the ingenious scenic design of Todd Rosenthal, which is fun to watch.
Fun is the operative word here. If you were thinking this sounds like Othello-on-crack, you're not taking into account how diffusing tragedy is when Guirgis coats it with the off-centered, savage humor that is his trademark. He pushes out passionate people whose bite is every bit as good as their bark, and Anna D. Shaprio knows exactly what to do with them, having won a Best Director Tony for proving, in August: Osage County, how fiercely funny dysfunction can be.
There is such a smokescreen of extraneous issues surrounding the play — starting with the controversial title and including the wisdom of throwing a virgin actor (regardless of box-office clout) into this heavy-duty fray — that its virtues are obscured, but some first-nighters thought these may be enough to give David Lindsay-Abaire's Good People a run for the Tony and the Pulitzer.
Arguably the most delightful surprise popping out of this Hat is its fifth wheel/character, Cousin Julio, a sexually and morally ambiguous individual pitched perfectly right down the middle by Yul Vazquez. Despite the hint of effeteness, he fancies himself Jean-Claude Van Damme in a tight fix, underlining that illusion with sharp martial-arts moves. Amid these marital battles pounding around him, he functions as a referee — even a judge — rendering harsh and accurate character-assessments. He's something of a Polonius, who sees himself and others with clarity.
Vazquez, along with Mimi O'Donnell (who provided the properly low-rent costumes for the production) and Guirgis, constitutes the LABrynith triumvirate of artistic directors — a lofty perch that probably allowed a first-pickings perspective.[flipbook]
Whatever, he was grateful for the shot. "I love that it's a guy who is dealing with stuff in his life," Vazquez said at the after-party held at the lavish 20th-floor club at 230 Fifth Avenue. "Julio has made some choices, and he has kinda made peace with things so he's in a position to impart wisdom to others. He tells what he thinks of them in a very gentle but stern way. He's, like, 'No, you gotta get your s**t right.'
"I'm fortunate to have been entrusted with such a beautiful character. Characters like that don't come along often in an actor's career, and I'm fortunate — incredibly fortunate to have Stephen's words and to be in the hands of Anna Shapiro."
In so many words, director Shapiro said the text made her do it. "It was a wonderful process, and the play is unbelievably enjoyable from start to finish," she admitted. "What you work towards is not just the laughs, but a quality of silence in the audience as well, and I think, by tonight, we have that. I think what you do is construct the arc, and, if you're constructing the arc of the characters — well, certainly, there are scenes that have more emotional weight. They require more emotional breadth, but every scene has got to be as lived-in as the next because that's how you're building onto the point that Bobby gets to by the end of the play."
Sciorra couldn't be happier to be on Broadway at long last. "It's a dream come true," she said. "I was born and raised in New York — in Brooklyn — and I have been seeing plays on Broadway since I was a kid eight or nine years old. And now I'm here."
Chris Rock, new kid on the Broadway block and the play's big draw, played it low-keyed and humble after making his stage bow. "Just to be associated with something this good is the reward, really," he said. "I've never done a play before, not even in high school, so I was so happy no one ever got frustrated at what I didn't know. They were very encouraging and motivating. I never felt like an outsider. Everybody here has done so many plays. I couldn't have been with a better group of people."
Not that the play is potty-mouthed, but even Rock was shocked on first reading. "I definitely laughed out loud — and I gasped. I couldn't believe they're going to really put this on Broadway. I was shocked that they were doing this on Broadway."
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