It’s rude. It’s crude. It’s funny and sexy. And it beats with the pulse of real life.
Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, after years of writing distinctive plays that were often produced at the small LAByrinth Theater Company in downtown Manhattan, burst onto the national scene last year with a play that traveled a path few do anymore: There were no tryouts, no out-of-town productions. It opened on Broadway, sight unseen.
And it has a title that few, if any, daily newspapers are willing to print. For our purposes we’ll call it “The Mother(expletive) With the Hat.” (Editors at the New York Times were so squeamish that they wouldn’t even include the word “mother” in the paper’s expurgated version of the title.)
Regardless, Guirgis’ hard-edged comedy about a small group of New Yorkers dealing with addiction and recovery, love and sex, and friendship and betrayal struck a chord with many viewers during its New York run. His characters seemed like real-world people with real-world problems.
And few titles fit a play better than this one. It is at once bald, unguarded and in your face. And that pretty much describes the way the young ex-cons, addicts and 12-step sponsors on stage live their lives.
Still, it’s not a play for all tastes. As this critic left the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre after a matinee last March, I overheard a couple of retirement-age ladies, no doubt veteran New York theatergoers, lamenting “the degradation of the theater.”
“I have to say it got a lot of different kinds of reactions, but honestly I’d say they were overwhelmingly positive, even from the little old lady demographic,” Guirgis said by telephone last week. “I didn’t write it with the thought that it was gonna be on Broadway. You know, I thought it was gonna be in our little theater downtown.”
The Unicorn Theatre has chosen to open its season with Guirgis’ play, matching an able director, Sidonie Garrett, with a cast that seems fully equipped to dig into the vivid, R-rated dialogue. Darren Kennedy plays Jackie, an ex-con on parole who has just landed a real job but goes into a tailspin when he thinks his longtime girlfriend Veronica, a cocaine addict played by Vanessa Severo, has slept with another man.
For help he turns to his smooth-talking 12-step sponsor, Ralph D, played by Rufus Burns. But Ralph and his wife, Victoria, performed by Meredith Wolfe, are struggling with issues of their own. After Jackie drunkenly confronts Veronica, he asks his cousin Julio, a massage therapist and health-food chef played by Francisco Villegas, to take him in.
Guirgis said the New York production happened after stage and film producer Scott Rudin got wind of the play and read it. Rudin decided it needed a star, which turned out to be Chris Rock as Ralph D, and chose to put it up on Broadway without a preliminary production at a smaller theater.
It’s a New York play written by a lifelong New Yorker. But it depicts marginalized members of society — the working-class poor who can never seem to do better than tread water — theatergoers rarely encounter. Especially on Broadway.
After years of happily creating work for the LAByrinth Theater with his fellow company members Bobby Cannavale, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Yul Vazquez, all of whom appeared in the Broadway production, Guirgis said it all seemed unreal.
“When we were actually physically on Broadway . . . we all had this sense of do we really belong here?” Guirgis said. “Is it OK for us to be here? Is somebody gonna come tell us to leave? But producers aren’t stupid, and they don’t take on mercy missions for the sake of art. They thought it had commercial potential and the audience was really diverse. And I was just as likely to get a complement from an old lady as I would from a younger person. And that’s not to say everyone liked it because I know that’s not possible. But we got a lot of positive affirmation in places we didn’t expect, like with older people, with ushers in the theater who are all kind of cranky Broadway veterans.”
As far as the sexually frank language being “shocking,” people were saying that about David Mamet’s plays 35 years ago. Guirgis said he didn’t really think about it as he worked on the piece.
“I realize the play is specific in its language and the lives it portrays, but my intention whenever I write anything is never like, oh, let me ruffle some feathers,” he said. “I was trying to write something that hopefully would be entertaining and have some meaning.”
Guirgis, 47, began his career in theater as an actor, which he still is, but began writing after he hooked up with the LAByrinth Theater Company, a small outfit in the West Village whose members include everyone from award-winning actor/directors like Philip Seymour Hoffman to firefighters and school teachers who are still working straight jobs. Guirgis is one of three artistic directors.
“None of the characters were based on anybody I knew,” he said. “They were all invented. But the play came about from a couple of different feelings and real-life experiences I was going through at the time. And one was just the notion I kind of explore in the play of how the codes of friendship or the codes we live by as younger people don’t necessarily stay the same throughout (our lives). ... I think when we’re younger, as guys our male friendships are more important to us. And so we bond and most people have a sense of honor or a code for the way you treat your friends. When we get older and get out in the world and people start experiencing all the things that can happen in life, sometimes that can change things.”
One question raised in the play is what you should do if your best friend is married and yet you know he’s cheating on his wife. What should you do? What can you do? Other aspects of the play deal explicitly with addiction and recovery.
“I’ve been in and out of those 12-step rooms, and a discovery I made along the way is that the program itself is perfect, but the people in it are not,” he said. “The people are a work in progress. Nobody gets into those rooms because they’re so well-adjusted. Nobody comes in as like a Buddha or a Gandhi.”
And, Guirgis said, the play looks at characters who simply aren’t as mature as they should be.
“I write a lot about people that are maybe past the age when they’re supposed to have matured and grown up and are still in that process,” he said. “That’s still in me and that lives in the main character of Jackie. ... In childhood it’s like everything is all or nothing: You’re either my best friend or my worst enemy, you know. And the real world is much more complicated than that. So I was interested in telling a story where you have a guy like that sponsor, who’s actually like a great sponsor ... and yet his moral compass is twisted, you know. He’s a dry drunk.”
A distinguishing feature of Guirgis’ play is the conspicuous absence of WASPs. The world of the play is a dynamic combination of Hispanic, Italian and African-American ethnic characters, which to an extent reflects the nature of the LAByrinth membership. But it also reflects the way Guirgis grew up.
The son of an Egyptian father and an Irish-American mother, Guirgis was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended kindergarten and elementary school in Harlem. Ethnic diversity was normal.
“It wasn’t a wealthy neighborhood but it was a decent neighborhood,” he said. “My family had a lot less money than all my other friends in the neighborhood. So to a certain degree I didn’t fit in. ...
“The school in Harlem was very mixed, which was great. So ... where I spent most of my time was places where I didn’t quite fit in and I was trying desperately to fit in. And I think that might be where I got some of my aptitude for writing dialogue. Because I wasn’t a strong kid so I couldn’t get accepted by beating somebody up. I wasn’t a good athlete. I wasn’t a troll but I wasn’t handsome enough to be a ladies’ man. So I had to be funny. I remember I was always listening to other people talk and trying to figure out what I can or how I can act that would let me be accepted. So I got the benefit of a little bit of an ear for how different people talk. And that definitely came from living in New York.”
Guirgis, who speaks with a New Yorker’s seen-it-all voice, copped to feeling giddy when it became clear that he was going to have a play in a Broadway theater.
“You know what? No matter what anybody says, being on Broadway is a big deal,” he said. “It just is. ... You know, when the play’s gonna happen they put the sign up on the marquee even before you’re in the theater. And I remember the day they put the sign up, Bobby Cannavale — you know, he’s got a really good career, he’s not like hurting for work — he was as excited as me. He said, ‘Let’s go down there and look at the sign!’ So we went down there and looked at the sign and hung out in front of the sign and took pictures in front of the sign.”
And the title? It hasn’t changed since he began working on the script.
“It was always the title of the play,” he said. “And even when it was gonna go to Broadway no one never asked me to change the title. And then it wasn’t until the Times wouldn’t print the ad, and this and that, that they were like, ‘What would you think of changing the title?’ I was willing. I think I even told them early on, like, if you need me to change the title I’ll figure something out. But once it was announced and it was gonna happen, then they were kind of saying: ‘Is it possible to change the title?’ I said not really now because ... it just looks like I changed the title to go on Broadway.”
So the title, much like the situations dealt with by the characters in the play, is what it is.
“I think everybody felt confident that the title wouldn’t be an issue,” he said. “And then, when it did become an issue, it was something we just worked through. Again, I think the saving grace was that more people thought the play was good than not good. And that can cover up a multitude of sins, including a provocative title.”Now playing
“The Mother(expletive) With the Hat” runs through Sept. 30 at the Unicorn Theatre, 3828 Main St. Call 816-531-7529 or go toUnicornTheatre.org.