Bobby Cannavale and Chris Rock in
The Motherf**ker with the Hat
(© Joan Marcus)
Bobby Cannavale and Chris Rock in
The Motherf**ker with the Hat
(© Joan Marcus)
The title of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis' , The Motherf**ker with the Hat, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, may strike some as provocative and/or vulgar. But it's also quite appropriate for this bracingly funny play -- the author's first to hit Broadway -- in which passion and profanity form a heady mix.

In the very first scene, squabbling lovers Jackie (Bobby Cannavale) and Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) alternate between cursing each other out and declaring their love. The insults they hurl are both cruel and often exceedingly hilarious. The argument starts once Jackie notices a hat that is definitely not his within the shabby apartment that he shares with Veronica. He accuses her of infidelity, she denies it, and off they go.

Jackie seeks support from his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor, Ralph D (Chris Rock), crashing with him and his wife Victoria (Annabella Sciorra) for a few days while he gets his head together. However, things get a little worse for Jackie, who is on parole, once he decides to get a gun and seek retribution, resulting in an incident that is both comic and more than a little misguided.

Cannavale delivers a beautifully layered performance, uncovering Jackie's strengths alongside his insecurities and not-so-nice behavior. He has a wounded look that inspires sympathy, even when he's lashing out. Rock, on the other hand, plays his character too much on the surface. Ralph D's actions show a great deal of complexity, and yet Rock's merely adequate performance only hints at his deeper motivations.

Rodriguez matches Cannavale's intensity, and their scenes together demonstrate the combustible chemistry that brings Jackie and Veronica together and also tears them apart. Sciorra exposes her character's sadness and vulnerability in a nicely handled confessional scene between Victoria and Jackie. Rounding out the cast is Yul Vazquez, who turns in a delightfully quirky yet grounded performance as Jackie's cousin Julio.

Todd Rosenthal's excellent scenic design makes a striking first impression with an impressionistic and somewhat askew cityscape that serves as a fitting background for the action. It's made even more effective as the walls and portions of the floor revolve to swiftly and efficiently change out the décor to transform the main playing area into three distinctly different apartments.

Guirgis' lean, muscular dialogue exposes the raw pain expressed by several of his characters, while also providing an ironic commentary on life and love. Ralph D expresses a cynical philosophy in regards to fidelity that is the opposite of Jackie's worldview. Their exchange forms the crux of the play, and while there's a certain amount of moralizing within the discussion, both the playwright and director Anna D. Shapiro are careful to keep the tone of the scene light enough that it does not unbalance the comedy of the rest of the play.