Upon arriving home from seeing Stephen Adly Guirgis’s new play, The Motherf**ker with the Hat, I updated Facebook status with this: “Just motherf**king sat through The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Do not try this at home, kids.” And that’s my warning to you, too, dear readers. While this limited run is still in previews (it officially opens April 11), and that means changes are still being made (to wit: in the program, it is printed that the show will run with one 15-minute intermission; there was an insert in last night’s program superseding that, saying the show will run without an intermission), but I’m afraid that another two and a half weeks of previews won’t fix what ails this motherf**king play.
The Motherf**ker with the Hat was originally supposed to be produced off-Broadway at the Public theatre. In fact, the Public and its frequent collaborator, the LAByrinth Theater Company, are producers of the Broadway bow. Perhaps off-Broadway this would play better, or at least have an easier time meeting expectations. When I see something off-Broadway, I often go in with the understanding that this work isn’t fully formed. Sometimes, my expectations are met, with the production being okay but needing some work. Sometimes, my expectations are wonderfully exceeded, as was the case with Circle Mirror Transformation. So if I had seen this off-Broadway, I might be more forgiving. I still wouldn’t have like it, but I’d be more forgiving. But The Motherf**ker with the Hat is on Broadway (because producer Scott Rudin snagged Chris Rock as a cast member) and thus my status update.
I was so fidgety throughout the play, which focused on a recovering alcoholic who spirals out of control when he finds a hat, belonging not to him but to some motherf**ker, in the apartment he shares with this addict girlfriend. I didn’t care about most of the characters, who, by the way, rarely engaged in dialogue and instead exchanged speeches. And these speeches were poorly directed by Anna D. Shapiro (who did such a fantastic – Tony winning, in fact – job with August: Osage County). At times, Rock would just stand there looking stilted and stunted; he didn’t know where to go or what to do; his character might have wanted to move but the direction wouldn’t let him. And the fight that breaks out between two characters was awful. It looked more like the two actors were going through the motions in fight call and there was absolutely no lead up. The fight seemed to come out of no where. Maybe all of this is because they’re in previews and going through changes, but the entire cast looked uncomfortable for about 90% of their time on stage.
The stage, however, had an interesting and efficient scenic design by Todd Rosenthal. When I first looked at the stage, I saw a big behemoth of an apartment and I thought, “Oh, this all takes place in this one apartment.” I was pleasantly surprised when a triptych spun to reveal a different kitchen; a wall descended into the ground to reveal a living room; and a floor board flipped to reveal a couch. In total, there were three settings in this design and it was pretty neat to see how Rosenthal accommodated three homes on one stage. (I don’t think this scenic design could be done at an off-Broadway house, so there’s at least one plus to this being on Broadway.)
And there were some glimpses of potential. Bobby Cannavale, as the newly sober and newly out-of-prison Jackie, had intense, honest moments here and there. He is a good actor, finding depth in this role and doing his very best portraying a thoroughly unlikable anti-hero. Rock, as Ralph, Jackie’s AA sponsor, was sporadically funny (unlike in his self-written stand up routines, in which he’s consistently hilarious) but seemed to struggle with more intense moments. Veronica, Jackie’s addict girlfriend, is a hot-tempered Latina brought to life by Elizabeth Rodriguez. She and Cannavale sparred effectively, although sometimes Rodriguez mistook shouting for expressing emotion. As Ralph’s wife, Victoria, Annabella Sciorra did well with little, excelling in one of the better scenes in the play, during which she confronts Jackie. And Yul Vazquez was asking for laughs as Julio, Jackie’s cousin. It’s not so much that he was bad in the role but rather that the role was written as caricature and Vazquez didn’t do anything to combat that.
However, the sometimes decent performances were overshadowed by a sub-par, sometimes lazy play. A couple of the jokes seemed lifted right out of Rock’s comedy. (In particular: one character talks about someone wanting a medal for something he’s supposed to do; another character says something to the effect of, “I’m not saying I’m gonna do this, but I understand.” Both of these, in so many words, have appeared in Rock’s material.) In addition, the dialogue is terribly unnatural. One character offers another a “nutritional beverage,” and then proceeds to drop f-bombs like a drunken sailor. I’m not saying articulate people don’t curse, but it was so unnatural to hear “nutritional beverage” to begin with and then have it followed by “f this” and “f that.” Moreover, it needs to be shorter. The lack of intermission indicates they’ve been cutting, but they need to cut more. The entire penultimate scene could easily be cut. It’s only a few minutes long so it wouldn’t have a great impact on the running time, but it’s completely unnecessary. There’s nothing we learn in that scene that isn’t reiterated in the following scene.
Most importantly, though, I just didn’t understand what the point of this was. Was I supposed to learn something from these pathetic characters? If so, the lesson was lost on me. And it wasn’t entertaining enough to just be entertaining. (The humor was low class, which is different from low brow, and did not tickle my funny bone.) I found nothing compelling in these characters or their stories. There’s nothing redemptive, nothing to take away. It’s a shame that the talents of director Shapiro and actor Cannavale are wasted on this motherf**king play.
(Don't want to heed my warning? Visit themfwiththehat.com for show info and to purchase tickets.)