Bobby Cannavale and Chris Rock headline Broadway production with an off-Broadway feel

the-motherfker-with-the-hat.jpg Bobby Cannavale, the essence of intensity, earned a Tony nomination for his portrayal of "The Motherf**ker With a Hat's" Jackie, a recently released con, coiled so tightly he spends much of his time on stage with his neck veins bulging.

In the taut play, Jackie did a couple of years upstate for drugs. He's excited to be back, in a dingy uptown apartment with Veronica ( Elizabeth Rodriguez), whom he has loved since eighth grade. Jackie got a job as a porter in a building and hopes to someday make it to superintendent.

Rodriguez matches Cannavale in intensity in Stephen Adly Guirgis' play about love, betrayal and addiction. The title, which the marquee at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre shows with two asterisks, comes from how Jackie refers to a man he suspects is having sex with Veronica.

Veronica is fierce. She also uses, but holds down a job and has dreams. To some, her dreams would seem small, but ultimately she's looking for what most are: security. She wants Jackie to have a heating/air conditioning degree and for them to live in Yonkers. She wants kids and a husband. She wants love. Her habits -- taking other lovers and smoking crack -- don't bode well for her suburban dream.

Trying to remain sober, Jackie relies on his sponsor, Ralph ( Chris Rock), married to Victoria ( Annabella Sciorra).

The only other actor in the play is Yul Vazquez as Jackie's cousin Julio. He's the most interesting character on the stage, as he pushes his vitamin supplements and flits about but has a core of iron. He knows Jackie takes him for granted, but has always loved his cousin for standing by him when they got high for the first time.

"Look, if you ever need money for rehab or an exorcism, let me know," he tells Jackie.

Jackie and Veronica could snap at any moment, which makes them fascinating to watch. Will they use? Will Jackie go berserk on her and on the man she's sleeping with?

When Jackie does slip, Julio rescues him. The next day, Jackie remembers nothing.

"Papi, God created blackouts for a reason," Julio tells him.

Rock's character, Ralph, is decidedly human and therefore flawed. He's Jackie's sponsor, not his savior. Though Rock is good, there's something about his delivery that makes it feel as if a punch line is coming. It never does.

Sciorra's Victoria is a woman who has made some bad decisions and realizes it. Yet she's so restrained that we're never sure if she really regrets leaving the Wall Street life, or what she wants. She may not know, which is fine, but we get little from her.

There's enough here, though, for a substantial play about interesting characters in interesting situations. It just feels a lot more like an off-Broadway show than a Broadway production.
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus