BY Led Black (@Led_Black)
I must admit, I knew precious little about this play going into it. First off, I knew it had the coolest title to ever be uttered on Broadway. Hey Led, where are you headed? “I’m off to see the Motherf**ker with the Hat.” You have to admit the satirical possibilities of that title are endless. Secondly, I knew that comedic God, Chris Rock, was making his Broadway debut in this play, which in of itself is quite a big deal. The thing is that the reaction to that little factoid is usually met by either an exclamation point or a question mark, as in: Chris Rock is on Broadway! Or; Chris Rock is on Broadway?
Don’t fret though, Chris Rock, in my humble estimation, pulls off the performance of his long and storied career in this one. He does that not by being Chris Rock the comedian but by being Chris Rock the serious actor. Chris Rock does a yeoman’s job of not standing out but of melding in with this wonderful and talented cast. The chemistry between Chris and his fellow thespians is evident and a testament to the growth and maturity of Chris Rock as a performer.
The play itself is simultaneously hilarious, poignant and thought provoking. The Motherf**ker With the Hat is about addiction, betrayal, love and the existential meaning of life. Chris Rock plays Ralph D; a former addict who has been clean for 15 years and has developed a penchant for healthy living and is the AA sponsor for Jackie played by the kinetic Bobby Cannavale. Jackie in his heart wants to straighten up his life after coming home from prison but is having a hard time of it, especially because his girlfriend Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is a line-snorting, crack pipe smoking, hard drinking addict herself who has no intentions of sobering up. Things take a turn for the worse when Jackie finds someone’s hat in the apartment they share. Even though Veronica vehemently denies any foul play, Jackie embarks on a quest to find out the identity of the Motherf**ker with the hat.
Bobby Cannavale practically crackles with anger and intensity in his portrayal of Jackie; who is a man possessed. Jackie will either find out the culprit or be consumed by the pursuit. Not to be undone, Elizabeth Rodriguez is remarkable with her devil-may-care, take no prisoners persona, spewing out invective at a rapid clip. Yul Vasquez, who plays Jackie’s somewhat effeminate but affable cousin Julio, is the glue that holds the play together. Julio is that ride or die family member who has your back unconditionally.
Growing up in Washington Heights during the crack era, I feel like I know these characters. They feel real, they are not one-dimensional caricatures but fully formed people with needs, wants, phobias and inescapable demons. That realness factor is a result of great casting but also of impeccable and authentic dialogue courtesy of playwright extraordinaire Stephen Adly Guirgis, who has a made a career of conjuring up real life New York City characters. Director Anna D. Shapiro brings all that vigor, vision and verve together and shapes the play into a force to be reckoned with. I was also quite taken by the set design by Todd Rosenthal, which is ingenious and transforms itself seamlessly in between scenes. In short, you do not want to miss this play that brings a much needed boost of color, cool and candor to Broadway. Long live the motherf**ker with the hat!