04/12/2011 01:42 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2011

First Nighter: Stephen Adly Guirgis's Play, The Motherf**ker With the Hat , Earns Its Broadway Asterisks

Over the last decade Stephen Adly Guirgis has been earning an unquestionably deserved reputation as one of the most important playwrights of his generation, if not the most important. But because of the way economics and popular taste have changed the culture for some time now, getting to Broadway -- once the pinnacle for American and international playwrights -- is no longer guaranteed to, or even coveted by, Guirgis and his peers. How long, for instance, did it take Sam Shepard or Neil LaBute to show up on the Great White Way?

Nonetheless, a group of intrepid producers -- including the Labyrinth Theater Company, of which Guirgis is currently an artistic director, and the Public Theater, at which Labyrinth has been housed for the last few seasons -- has seen fit to bring to uptown's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre the dramatist's latest work and ninth opus, The Motherf**ker With the Hat. Hedging their bets, however, they've slotted immensely popular stand-up comic Chris Rock into a five-member cast that also includes contemporary acting powerhouses Bobby Cannavale, Annabella Sciorra, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Yul Vasquez and is directed with assurance by Anna D. Shapiro.

Whether the tactic -- and Rock's not-bad performance amid four other exquisite turns -- pays off remains to be seen, but whatever transpires, Guirgis is on Broadway. And perhaps his presence there explains why associations with the historic environment trigger thoughts that this play -- while remaining concerned with the lower-class denizens Guirgis habitually makes his astute, obsessive study -- has the look of that longtime B'way staple: the drawing-room romantic comedy.

Okay, given the unceasingly scatological language in which The Motherf**ker With the Hat is couched (the title being only the beginning of the four-, seven- and twelve-letter-word deluge), it has to be categorized as a post-modern drawing-room comedy. That's what it is -- you know, a modern rom-com -- and as such, is to be greatly admired, enjoyed and seriously pondered after the final fade-out.

The less-than-luxurious New York City drawing-rooms ingeniously designed by Todd Rosenthal amount to three and keep alternating as if in a pop-up book. They're inhabited in the first sparsely furnished apartment by recovering alcoholic and druggie Jackie (Cannavale) and his cocaine-sniffing girlfriend Veronica (Rodriguez), in the second somewhat more inhabitant-friendly pad by Jackie's shifty Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor Ralph D. (Rock) and his disgruntled wife Victoria (Sciorra), and in the third space with its abundance of menacing greenery by Jackie's only somewhat effeminate cousin Julio (Vazquez).

At the outset when Jackie arrives to inform Veronica he's landed a job and prepares to celebrate in bed with her, the several-months-sober fellow spots a fedora on a table across the room. He knows it doesn't belong to him but to some "mother...,"well, you get the point. After accusing Veronica of an infidelity she adamantly denies -- in The Motherf**ker With the Hat all denials are laced with obscenities familiar to anyone alive today -- Jackie goes to commiserate with sponsor Ralph D., whose wife Victoria isn't any happier about her man than Veronica was when last spotted.

The Jackie-Veronica clash -- their genuine love for each other is plain to the audience if not to them -- sets off a round of confessions about out-of-relationship affairs or near-affairs threatening everyone's fragile regard for everyone else. As the intermissionless 90-minute play progresses, the manner in which revelations of playing around is revealed become as damaging as what's revealed -- the worst of the stinging bulletins concerning how Veronica and Ralph D. behaved before and after visiting Jackie during a period of time he was imprisoned.

So where are the drawing-room comedy and romance elements in the corrosive carrying-on? They're in the language and the behavior. They're in the volatility with which the characters express themselves. They're in Guirgis's setting up of the conflicts and in the sarcasm compulsively flung that amuses even as it inflicts pain. Funny lines abound, though quoting them is ineffective -- and not simply because of the obscenities emitted. For instance, the quip "That sh*t was in the Post" means little here but is the kind of outburst that triggers a sustained belly-laugh in the auditorium.

There are quotable speeches, however, and one of the best is uttered at great length by Julio, the wisest of the quintet. Although he's pulled into the action when Jackie comes to hide a gun at his plant-filled abode, he remains apart from the worst of the haranguing. After Jackie confesses that his jealousy led him to take the hat he found, throw it into his downstairs neighbor's apartment and shoot it -- he's decided the neighbor is "the motherf**ker with the hat" -- Julio agrees to keep possession of the weapon.

Nevertheless, he says in part to an abashed Jackie, "The reason I'm doing this more for your mother's memory than for you is because, maybe I never said this before, but 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."

Significantly, that spate of plain talk is pointedly atypical of Guirgis's characters. Though they rail at each other constantly, the impoverished expressions they utter -- the never-ending swearing -- prohibits them from getting through to one another. Towards the denouement and after Jackie and Ralph D. have wrestled over Veronica, Ralph D. declares that what went on sexually between any of them "really doesn't matter." That it does matter to the still-smitten Jackie is woefully apparent, but his final attempt to prove as much to Veronica avails him nothing.

Language has failed. That's Guirgis's story in The Motherf**ker With the Hat, and he's gallantly sticking to it. His title is both a poke in the potential ticket buyer's eye and his challenge for viewers to deal with all of its culture-shocked implications.

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