BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Bowing on Monday at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” is a gritty new comedy regarding the men who cheat and the women who won’t put up with them.
Trying to rehabilitate his messy life after doing prison time on drug charges, Jackie (Bobby Cannavale) surprises his girlfriend Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) with flowers and news of a job. Then the sight of a man’s hat on a table and a sniff through the bed sheets convinces Jackie that she is unfaithful.
Veronica’s furious denials send Jackie reeling to his AA sponsor Ralph (Chris Rock) and his wife Victoria (Annabella Sciorra) and later – after wrecking a neighbor’s apartment – to his Cousin Julio (Yul Vazquez).
As the story unfolds among several working-class Latino abodes, it turns out that everybody is cheating in one way or another. These proceedings are hilarious but rueful, its frequent laughter arising from the fact that most men are dogs when it comes to sex.
As its title suggests, this latest slice of contemporary New York life from Stephen Adly Guirgis is mighty raw in language. It’s also mighty well acted under Anna D. Shapiro’s sharp direction. And it’s fast, too – racing away at a speedy 100 minutes, which is unusual for Guirgis, whose plays usually take their time.
Known best for dramas like “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train” and “Our Lady of 121st Street,” Guirgis invents urgently-driven characters rich in all-too-human detail whose rapid-fire street talk strikes towards urban poetry in their colorful flights of often unprintable invective. In this lively new work, the playwright aims for comedy and succeeds in scoring plenty of laughs from his characters’ dangerous affairs.
Making a worthy Broadway debut enacting an individual not too distant from his cocky persona as a comedian, Rock portrays not-so-admirable Ralph as one cool cat who seems to have an answer for everything. A husky-voiced Cannavale gives impulsive Jackie a genuinely loveable quality in spite of his stupid behavior. Vazquez invests the somewhat gay-ish and very proud Cousin Julio with class.
Sciorra gets relatively little to do as the vexed Victoria, but spits her venom well. The role of Veronica is far juicier and the intense, frequently staccato Rodriguez squeezes every bitterly funny moment from this hot-tempered soul who drives Jackie to drink.
Shapiro directs her actors to play the comedy very truthfully but quickly on an impressive setting designed by Todd Rosenthal that rapidly flips between three different apartments. A metal staircase that zigzags towards the heavens, a vertical slice of Manhattan skyline and a vast, empty billboard frame looming above the action lends visual grandeur to a human comedy that some viewers are likely to recognize as being all too close to home.
“The Motherf**ker with the Hat” continues through June 26 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, 236 W. 45th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.themfwiththehat.com.