Motherfucker with the Hat is not for the faint-hearted, but those who have the palate or at least the stomach for an evening of foul-mouthed drama will experience one of the most honest plays about addiction out there. The play focuses on the relationship of Jackie (Bobby Cannavale) and Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who struggle with alcohol and cocaine addictions respectively. He’s trying to quit. She, not so much. What’s at stake is more than their sobriety, but in fact their fidelity and trust. What makes the central relationship of this play even more explosive is that Jackie and Veronica appear to be high-octane people regardless of their chemical intake. Veronica is a feral pit bull trapped in a cute, petite body. And Jackie has an endearing sweetness that is easily subverted by a short fuse. In fact, the first thing one might notice about this production is that everyone yells. A lot. Even when they’re happy. In the opening scene (one of the best I’ve ever seen in its tightness of acting, dialogue, and staging), Jackie comes home to Veronica with gifts in celebration of his first job since his release from prison. Their excitement about the job and more so about each other is expressed in sexual and gleeful vociferousness. So you can imagine that the volume only increases when, in the midst of excitement, Jackie eyes a suspicious looking hat on the table and jumps to the accusation that Veronica is cheating on him. The play continues in similar blood-pumping ferociousness as insults are hurled, secrets are uncovered, and bottles of alcohol are either smashed or guzzled.
With the understanding that addiction is a disease comes a certain empathy for individuals who aren’t in control of their destructive actions. It makes us care about Jackie and Veronica and believe that there’s love and good intentions at their core. But if the cheating or other misdoing happens while sober, then the fact of their addiction may be immaterial to their behavior. Simply put, would these characters have the capacity to be this hurtful if not for the drugs that control them? The power of this play depends, for me, on that question. For Jackie and Veronica’s relationship to mean something, I have to believe that their addiction is inextricably linked to their transgressions. To playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ credit, he doesn’t force the argument one way or the other. What he does instead is suggest that coping with addiction can’t help but seep into every other facet of living.
As for Chris Rock’s performance, yelling onstage has never found a more well-suited actor. Seriously, his conversational volume is decibels louder than necessary. Is that based on Anna D. Shapiro’s direction or is it just Chris Rock being Chris Rock? Either way, he holds his weight pretty well against the extraordinarily talented Bobby Cannavale.
The tone, language, and coarseness of Motherfucker occasionally feel odd in a Broadway theater, but I’m so glad that a larger audience gets to experience Stephen Adly Guirgis’ writing. The play is a bumpy ride, which – given the subject matter – makes it feel more genuine.