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A play that dare not speak its name

“The Mother** With the Hat” By Stephen Adly Guirgis • Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, 236 West 45th St., NYC • Open-Ended Run)

As an active member of the LAByrinth Theatre Company, Stephen Adly Guirgis, New Jersey-bred son of an Irish mother and an Egyptian father, has written several of the most compelling plays produced off-Broadway in the last decade, including “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” “In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings” and “Our Lady of 121st Street.”

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He had not reached Broadway until now, where he has opened his blistering new comedy, “The Mother** With the Hat.” Giving a play a title which cannot be printed in full in family newspapers doesn’t seem to have given Guirgis any problems, because he believes firmly that it’s the precisely right name for what he wrote.

The play’s central character, Jackie, has returned to New York a free man after slightly more than two years in an upstate prison. His live-in girlfriend, Veronica, is extremely eager to have him home again after having been limited to monthly prison visits, and has cleaned the apartment in his honor.

The trouble begins when Jackie, brilliantly played by Bobby Cannavale in a breakout performance, finds a hat which doesn’t belong to him resting on a table in the flat’s main room. Acting on instinct, he smells the hat, and, just to be sure, he also smells the pillow and the sheets on the nearby bed.

It isn’t so much that Jackie doesn’t trust Veronica (Elizabeth Rodriguez, in an impressive Broadway debut,) as it is that, after more than two years upstate, he really doesn’t trust anyone, including his friend and sponsor, Ralph D., (comedian Chris Rock, also making his Broadway debut,) who is his sponsor during his parole period.

The five-actor work’s remaining characters are Ralph D’s wife, Victoria, (a brief role nicely done by Annabella Sciorra,) and Jackie’s Brazilian cousin, Julio, a debut from the striking Yul Vazquez, playing a man whose feelings for his estranged relative encompass love and hatred, frequently expressed simultaneously.

The play is profane in the extreme, but the language, even at its roughest and its worst, seems totally logical coming out of the mouths of Guirgis’ seriously stressed characters.

Rough-hewn as it is, “The Mother** With the Hat” nevertheless comes across as a reasonably well-made play, with its simple, direct plotline and its readily accessible characters.

The playwright’s concerns here are the potential riches provided by loyalty and the possible wounds to be inflicted by betrayal, particularly if the participants are closely associated.

Ralph D’s “loyalty” to his friend, Jackie, combined with his duties as his parole sponsor, emerge in his willingness to drive Veronica upstate for her twenty-six monthly prison visits. Other aspects of his feelings about the overall situation are perhaps less admirable, as Guirgis’s play soon enough makes clear.

Whether or not the habitual Broadway theater patrons, and the tourists who make up so much of the summer audiences, will be willing or able to accept Guirgis’ vision, and his people, without complaint remains to be seen.