The unlikeliest reception for all these projects is the one enjoyed by “Hat,” the Broadway playwriting debut of off-Broadway’s Stephen Adly Guirgis (“The Last Days of Judas Iscariot”). Featuring a captivating Bobby Cannavale as an alcoholic ex-con struggling to do the right thing, and in an endearingly legitimate turn, Chris Rock as his therapy-group sponsor, “Hat” is the surprise of the spring, a risibly foul-mouthed takedown of all the sanctimony surrounding the various processes of recovery.
The early publicity for Guirgis’s play — staged with style and acute intuition by Anna Shapiro — suggested that the tills in the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre have not exactly been ringing. Whether it was the profanity in the title or the competition from the surfeit of April openings on Broadway, no one knows for sure; Rock’s raucous appeal, apparently, isn’t so easily marketable in the arena of conventional dramatics.
One can only hope the strong notices that have been published in the wake of Monday night’s opening will help perk up the box office. Because the production clearly deserves to find an audience, among those not offended by an expletive or two . . . thousand. Its pleasures derive from the manner in which Cannavale’s pretty dim, trigger-tempered Jackie — fresh out of a New York prison where he’d done time for drugs — has his head spun every which way by the plot’s other addicts and ex-addicts: Rock’s Ralph, his wife, Victoria (Annabella Sciorra), and Jackie’s spitfire girlfriend, Veronica, portrayed by the superb Elizabeth Rodriguez. (Yul Vazquez also contributes a smashing performance as Jackie’s easily offended cousin, Julio.)
Guirgis provides each of the actors bravura moments: The explosive opening scene in Veronica’s apartment, during which Jackie fails to get Veronica to reveal who owns the man’s hat he finds on a table, sets a high comic standard that is sustained for the ensuing 90 minutes; Rodriguez and Cannavale brawl with a gusto that rivals Shakespeare’s Kate and Petruchio.
Rock has a formidable assignment in this accomplished ensemble, portraying a reptile with a smooth-talker spiel, and at times you can tell that he’s not entirely comfortable taking on a chameleon’s responsibilities. But Ralph is close enough to Rock in temperament and cynical outlook to make the transformation credible. And so in this case the star casting, these days far too much with us on Broadway, actually pays off.