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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She fell in love with her character, Veronica, the first time she read it. "I only read parts of it — because it wasn't fully written — but I know Stephen's work. I've worked with him before, and I know that I needed to find a heart and fully give over — and I think I've been able to do that. It is hard because my body doesn't know that it's acting. Your body processes something, and you go through it so, basically, I'm much more conscious about what I do with my time away from the theatre. I'm getting massages, and I'm taking baths, really trying to nurture myself, things like that.
"You don't see Veronicas on Broadway. I judge this character when I walk down the street initially, and I think by the time you leave the theatre I hope that every member of the audience finds a part of them that can connect to her." Guirgis harbors the identical wish: "I hope these are characters that people can empathize with and can see themselves and take something for them to think about or to reexamine in themselves — while, hopefully, also getting some laughs.
"I grew up in New York — a lifetime New Yorker — with my mother, who'd take us to the theatre once every two years but talk about the theatre every day, so I can't pretend I'm jaded about being on Broadway. It's really exciting, and it means a lot.
"Also, I don't just get to bring my play to Broadway. I travel here with my theatre company, with my friends — and the audiences that are coming to see this play seems to be more of a mix of all different kinds of people. It's a really nice feeling." And about that title? "I think it's the right title for the play, but, if I could have helped with the marketing — if they had said to me, 'Listen, we can't get the word out unless you change the title' — yeah, I would have been fine calling it something else."
LAByrinth Godfather, the Oscar winner known as Philip Seymour Hoffman, came in his best orange-and-brown checkerboard shirt (casual doesn't begin to cover it) and could almost be heard clucking contentedly over the company's raging hysterics from his fourth-row aisle seat. It was, after all, Hoffman, who co-founded the group with John Ortiz and directed the visceral ensemble to distinction in five of Guirgis' first plays (starting 11 years ago with Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train — a foreshadowing early sign of titular irreverence, kindly note).
Among the LAByrinth charter members attending: David Zayas (bound for Season Six of "Dexter") with wife Liza Colon-Zayas, Doubt playwright John Patrick Shanley, Vanessa Aspillaga and Kevin Geer.
A Liu and a Lee (Lucy and Spike) and a couple of Joshes (Charles and Hamilton) led off the celebrity list.
Isabella Rosellini showed up in support of Yul Vazquez and Annabella Sciorra. Both Arian Moayed and Glenn Davis came, prompting the query, "Who's minding the zoo?" (Their Baghdad Zoo is dark on Mondays, it seems.) And the gorgeous Malaak Compton-Rock arrived with her empathetic nerves comfortably in check: "I am so much less nervous than I normally am because he is so good. I thought that this would probably be the most nervous I'd be for anything in his career, but I'm not. It's not like seeing Chris Rock and four actors. It's seeing five actors up there, five brilliant actors, so I'm not nervous."
A few celebrity guests came out of left field — like, figuratively, New York Yankee Curtis Granderson. "We got an off-day today so the season and the scheduling worked out great," he explained. "I saw Chris Rock do stand-up about ten years ago in Schererville, IN, of all places. It was a great show. Heard about this. The timing worked out great, so it's a great way to get some laughs in and just relax."
Bill Dawes, currently Paul Hornung in Lombardi at Circle in the Square, skipped practice as well and escorted "The Bold and the Beautiful" Mandy May to the theatre. "I'm a friend of the playwright and the theatre company," he offered. "Also, I'm a stand-up comic, and Chris Rock is one of my heroes. I've watched other comics make their Broadway debuts — Robin Williams in Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo andJim Gaffigan in That Championship Season — and I'm looking forward to Dane Cook Fat Pig [in a future season], so that's part of it." Meanwhile, till a comedy gig opens up, Dawes will be hiding out as an "underground actor" in Lombardi.
One surprise celeb not on the photo-tip sheet was responding to a star summons. "Chris invited me down," explained Ricky Gervais. "He's a friend, and I'm a fan." In clipped Brit speech and no uncertain terms, he said he wouldn't be following Rock's lead onto the stage. "The only theatre I do is stand-up in a nice place. I like theatres a lot more than arenas, in a way. There's something more intimate about them so it suits my sort of comedy. But I'm not doing a play. That terrifies me."
Lily Rabe, arriving with actor-brother Michael, "just got back from L.A., shooting a Fox pilot called 'Exit Strategy.'" Ethan Hawke is her co-star.
Also: Jerry Seinfeld, directors Michael Greif and Mark Wing-Davey, The Public's Oskar Eustis, Tony winner Christine Baranski, Paul Rudd, Richard Thomas, Dashiell Eaves, Good People's Tate Donovan, Laura Metcalf and Dennis Boutsikaris (enjoying a night away from MCC Theater's The Other Place) and Louis C.K.
Looking very much the star standout in intense kelly green, Sutton Foster was spending her first full day off from Anything Goes, escorting Cannavale to his opening-night bash — he having done that for her five nights ago.
"We've had quite a week, and it's so nice to be on his arm tonight," she chirped. A couple since they did Trust last summer Off-Broadway, they now loom a little like The Fairbanks of Broadway. "I know, and we have so much to talk about. Our plays are so similar." (She kids, of course: It would be impossible to find more polar opposites on Broadway than Anything Goes and this Hat trick.)
Finding the Motherf**cker in All of Us: