Raw, intense and caustically funny, the new play called The Motherf**ker With the Hat is as in-your-face as its unlikely name. And if that name - spelled officially with the asterisks, as above - turns you off, you may as well stop reading here, because in Stephen Adly Guirgis' immensely satisfying tale of love torn asunder by an mysterious hat, there's lots more where that came from.
The play opened Monday night at the Schoenfeld Theatre and marks the Broadway debut of comedian Chris Rock and three others in the bang-up five-member cast, and the return to Broadway of the powerful TV and film actor Bobby Cannavale, who made his Broadway debut three years ago in Mauritius.
Cannavale is a reforming alcoholic in this play, developed by Off-Broadway's LAByrinth Theatre and backed in its engagement by the Public Theater. His character, Jackie, seems on top of the world: He's found a job - menial, but a job - and he's come to woo the childhood sweetheart who's now his cocaine-snorting girlfriend (the excellent Elizabeth Rodriguez) when his day suddenly goes south. She's in the shower, he's waiting in bed and he spots a man's hat on a little table. And it's not his.
What happens next -and continues through the intermissionless play - is a shrill, explosively charged accounting of a lightly glued world that begins suddenly to come apart. Granted, for these folks the world is always shattering a little - but it now disintegrates at a new level.
Chris Rock plays the Alcoholics Anonymous-guided sponsor of Jackie - his only real friend, it seems. Rock started out a little weak in his projection at the performance I saw Saturday afternoon, but revved up as his character became evermore embroiled in a tangle of deceits and counter-deceits that also involved his wife (Annabella Sciorra). By the play's end, Rock had fully established his chops in the role.
Yul Vázquez plays Jackie's gay cousin Julio, who believes in the power of greens, herbs and juices - and the more visible power of macho. Under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro (a Tony for August: Osage County), the characterizations are high-voltage and Guirgis' script gallops, especially when it considers the nature of fidelity.
The furniture in Todd Rosenthal's ingenious set pivots both horizontally and vertically for scene changes - and underscores the topsy-turvy quality of life the play so smartly captures. I would tip my hat to everyone involved - but in this case, that's probably not the best idea.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/howardshapiro. Follow him on Twitter at #philastage. Hear his reviews at the Classical Network, www.wwfm.org.