NEW YORK | OK, let's just call it "The Mother . . . With the Hat."
That's not what this funny, deeply humanistic play by Stephen Adly Guirgis is called, but neither the program nor the marquee can print the full title without the judicious use of a couple of asterisks.
Clearly, we've come a long way since "Tea and Sympathy."
I wasn't surprised when I heard a couple of theatergoers grumbling about the "degradation of the theater" as I left the show. Here we are, some 35 years since David Mamet began his playwriting career and 27 years since his "Glengarry Glen Ross," with its epithet-laden arias, claimed the Pulitzer Prize. And yet, the use of language -- some language, anyway -- in the theater remains controversial.
In my view there's a hunger for material like this -- superbly crafted, brilliantly performed plays that avoid pretentiousness, celebrate the human spirit with honest humor and poignancy and try to capture the reality of daily life in all its messy, glorious chaos.
The question of the hat, and to whom it may belong, triggers the action in this cleverly constructed piece about love, sex, betrayal, addiction and recovery among a group of present-day working-class New Yorkers.
Dominating this Cadillac cast is Bobby Cannavale as the muscular, high-strung Jackie, a recovering addict on parole who is elated because he just landed his first real job since his release from state prison. He comes home to his little apartment to celebrate with the woman in his life, Veronica, a simmering coke user played by the excellent Elizabeth Rodriguez.
Jackie's celebratory amorous mood disappears in a flash when he spies a hat on a table and demands to know whose it is. What ensues is a chain-reaction of accusations, destruction and deception as Jackie falls from his working-the-program high to an abject state of confused torment.
Jackie turns for help to his sponsor, Ralph D (Chris Rock in his Broadway debut), a seemingly serene, platitude-spewing figure who gets by on a steady diet of vegetable juice. His lonely, angry wife Victoria (the luminous Annabella Sciorra) seems unimpressed by Ralph's success in sobriety, mainly because she knows just how dishonest he is. Indeed, Ralph may abstain from drugs and alcohol, but he's still got a junkie's mind.
At one point Jackie turns to his cousin Julio (Yul Vazquez), a slightly effeminate but formidable health-food chef and notary public, whose skill as a massage therapist allows him to use his fingers as potentially lethal weapons (or, as he puts, it go "Van Damme"). Julio loves his cousin but doesn't mince words about how self-obsessed and callous Jackie is.
What emerges between Jackie, Veronica, Ralph and Victoria is a sort of round-robin of actual and would-be sexual relationships because, after all, love and sex are the most potent drugs of all. And just as actual narcotics do, they make people crazy.
Director Anna D. Shapiro (who won a Tony for staging "August: Osage County" in 2008) moves the action quickly and clearly in a play that runs about 100 minutes without an intermission. Cannavale, Rodriguez and Vazquez are simply electrifying, turning their characters' inarticulate eloquence into sheer poetry.
Rock may not have the acting chops of his colleagues, but his performance is solid and the character of Ralph fits his established comic persona like a glove. Sciorra's work is heartfelt -- volcanically emotional at times -- but she often seems challenged to project the performance beyond the first row.
Scenic designer Todd Rosenthal makes an enormous contribution with an ingenious series of sets that rapidly shift from one realistic location to another with revolving platforms and furniture that pivots up through trapdoors.
The fact this show is up for five Tony Awards -- including Best Play -- tells us all we need to know about the quality of this work. But Guirgis, like many playwrights who see life as a perpetual mix of the tragic and the absurd, gives us something more than a raucous comedy.
Ultimately it's a love story about Jackie and Veronica. As Jackie prepares to go back to prison for a parole violation, he tells the love his life that he'll do anything -- anything -- for them to be together.
We can't help but root for them but as the play concludes all we know for sure is that maybe they will and maybe they won't.
But there are no guarantees. Just like real life.