Addiction is the theme of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ play The Motherf***er with the Hat, which features Chris Rock in his Broadway debut. Drugs, alcohol, and relationships are all featured as unhealthy vices in this compelling character study of battling Puerto Rican lovers and the friends that enable them.
Jackie, a former convict, (in a compelling and commanding performance by Bobby Cannavale) lives with his girlfriend Veronica (a fiery Elizabeth Rodriguez), his on-again, off-again childhood sweetheart, in a dingy room with faded walls and little furniture. Jackie is a former alcoholic, and now in Alcoholics Anonymous, and Veronica continues to snort cocaine (while advising her mother to stop drinking). When Jackie comes home to find a man’s hat in their apartment, he suspects Veronica of cheating on him. This sends him on a spiral of potential drinking, drug use and violence, all of which he lacks the ability to cope with. Rock plays Jackie’s AA sponsor, Ralph D., a health-food fanatic and holier-than-thou source of advice. He lives in an impeccable, neutral-toned apartment with his wife Victoria’s (Annabella Sciorra, underused in a minor role).
While the title of this play cannot be spoken or written in public, language is the most utilized weapon in Hat. Ralph’s ability to talk Jackie down from his rage, Jackie and Veronica’s fiery arguments with each other, filled with threats and profanity, and Victoria’s vows that she will leave Ralph, are what command each scene. Physical violence also plays a part Hat, but it’s words that really contain danger.
With such a small cast (five characters), each performance in this show is vital, and unfortunately, Rock is not up to speed with his talented co-stars. As Jackie, Cannavale is able to depict a remarkable range of emotions, from tenderness to rage to fear. This is a man with too much energy and no comprehension of how to manage it. He manages to make Jackie a sympathetic character, despite his numerous flaws. Watching him struggle with his desire to drink is truly frightening, and one can’t help but hope that he manages to abstain.
When Cannavale shares the stage with Rock, he easily overpowers Rock’s star presence. He is bigger, both physically and as an actor. Rock gives a solid performance but ultimately he is miscast as Ralph, a hypocritical womanizer. To make Ralph believable, one has to understand why his wife would stay with him despite his infidelity, and Rock does not bring that aspect of his character to life onstage. His comedic skills are put to use at moments during the script, but they are not the foundation of the play, so they are, unfortunately, not enough.
Joining Cannavale and Rock onstage is Yul Vazquez, playing Jackie’s cousin Julio in a scene-stealing performance. His calm assessment of the mess that is Jackie’s life is remarkable, as is his comedic timing. He lands more laughs than any other member of the cast, and he does it quietly and calmly.
Sciorra plays Ralph’s much-neglected wife Victoria, and she does what she can with the part, but it is not much. Just like Victoria is overlooked by her husband, Sciorra is overlooked onstage. And Rodriguez’s frantic performance as Veronica is admirable; it must be an exhausting role to play. When she and Cannavale assess the ruins of their relationship, the emotion is real and saddening.
Anna D. Shapiro’s direction is swift and efficient and Todd Rosenthal’s scenic designs are remarkably thorough. The Motherf***er with the Hat gives a thorough look at addiction as well as honesty. It is an admirable, and unsettling, production.