A fedora has never looked quite so menacing as it does resting on a side table when Stephen Adly Guirgis' gritty new play "The Motherf---- with the Hat" opens.
Ex-con Jackie has come home to the dingy apartment he shares with his girlfriend with good news: He just landed a job, the final piece of a resurrection that includes sobriety, meeting his parole obligations and landing Veronica, the woman he's loved since eighth grade.
Then he spies the hat, like an unwanted calling card. Or an unexploded grenade. It's not his hat. It's not Veronica's, either. The audience at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where the play opened Monday, will leap to conclusions as quickly as Jackie: Whose hat is it? Why is it in the apartment? Oh, no.
Veronica tries to calm him, but Jackie won't let it go, demanding the truth of Veronica's infidelity even if he doesn't want the answer. As good a man as he is and as hard as he wants to change his life, he can't help himself.
The hat threatens to destroy Jackie (played movingly and powerfully by Bobby Cannavale). Having just pulled himself out of the abyss, Jackie could lose it all — girlfriend, sobriety and freedom — trying to find out the identity of the play's title character.
Much attention has been put on comedian Chris Rock appearing in his first play, but, like the hat, it's best not to get distracted. This is a play with a lesson about our fragility courtesy of Guirgis, who has had an award-winning string of off-Broadway successes with "The Little Flower of East Orange," ''Our Lady of 121st St.," ''Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" and "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot." The play explores how weak we are — but also how strong.
It is dark and sad and moving and extremely profane, but somehow Guirgis has found dark humor and a sort of lyricism as the four-lettered invectives spew out. He also has found in Anna D. Shapiro, who won a Tony Award for "August: Osage County," a director familiar with handling both foul language and savage arguments.
The playwright is making his Broadway debut with the four-character play and he's not alone: Film and TV actress Annabella Sciorra and frequent Guirgis collaborators Elizabeth Rodriguez and Yul Vazquez also are making their Broadway debuts.
Rock gets more comfortable as the play builds momentum, but he's clearly out-muscled by Cannavale and an astonishing Rodriguez, who plays Jackie's coked-up girlfriend in fifth gear at all times, an exposed nerve who hides any girlish emotion beneath spewing venom and an almost hysterical stubbornness.
After finding the hat, Jackie must flee. He first seeks help from Ralph, his AA sponsor played by Rock. Sober for 15 years, Ralph is in a thorny marriage with Victoria (Sciorra) and a believer in the power of healthy "nutritional beverages." He counsels Jackie to leave Veronica.
"Your girlfriend is an addict! And she has many qualities, that even to the casual observer, would seem to indicate that she has basic fundamental issues with impulse control and making good judgments," Ralph tells Jackie. "Do I need to say more?"
Jackie also seeks the help of his cousin Julio, a quirky man who represents both the comforting ties that family offers but also how irritating those ties can be. Vazquez, co-artistic director with the playwright of LAByrinth Theater Company, plays the former nerd-turned-health-nut Julio with obvious delight and tenderness.
As the play progresses, we learn that Veronica is hardly the only person with poor impulse control. Ralph, in fact, may be one of the poorest with that skill, revealing himself to be virtually a pleasure-seeking nihilist. Rock gets better and better in these scenes, which seem more in his wheelhouse; Guirgis' script here almost seem lifted from a Rock stand-up rant.
"Why should anyone — anyone — have to live by some stupid rules that make no sense because the fact is we're all gonna die anyway," Ralph tells Jackie. To which responds Jackie, the addict and monogamist who is still clinging to honor and a manly code: "I know that ain't no way to live."
The play is broken up into nine scenes and set designer Todd Rosenthal keeps the action at a roiling boil by having three different apartments and furniture mechanically rotate and flip into view, echoing the choppy, bewildering world of Jackie. The riveting, original horn-led music by Terence Blanchard is the icing on the cake for a play that is shrill and ugly and funny and touching.
It ends with a love song — and something missing from much of the play: hope.