Thursday, June 23, 2011

Is the Theatre Dead? Not on Your Motherf**cking Life

I rushed to the bus to New York yesterday because I didn’t want to be late for my matinee of The Motherf**ker With the Hat. I was in the mood for some laughs, and the show will probably close soon, so there was reason to get in gear and go.

I made it in time, got my seat in the center of the back row (it’s not a huge theater) and could tell from the set I was in for a great ride. I expected some comic turns by the always irreverent Chris Rock, maybe a stand-up type routine or two tied together with a loose plot and a lot of people running back and forth.

The play wasn’t like that at all. It began with a long telephone monologue by the extremely funny and hip Elizabeth Rodriguez. She’s playing a pretty if scruffy young woman talking on the phone to her mother and acting very much as if she is the mother herself. By the end of the speech she’s done a line of cocaine and had the audience howling with laughter. Her boyfriend enters, played magnificently by Bobby Cannavale, upbeat (for the only time in the play) and bragging about having landed a job. They are going to celebrate any minute—until he sees an unidentified man’s hat on a table in the room and everything in both their worlds changes forever.

The set does the first of its own dances now, revolving, looping, furniture folding down into the floor and up from another part of the floor. We are in a different setting where our hero is consulting with his AA sponsor, who is played very suavely by Chris Rock. I was delighted to see an AA element effectively worked into the play, neither as the crux of the script nor its deus ex machina. Just a fact of life. Like it or not. I for one love the 12-Step programs.

Other characters come in, other sets, and as the play moves on we cannot wait to see what happens next. It’s so expertly written that the viewer doesn’t think of it as a string of long monologues woven together to tell a story, which, on one level, it is. The use of profanity is essential—this script elevates street language to poetry and raises the mundane, tawdry situations of everyday life of flawed, dirty, confused people to classical heights. It was a wondrous experience in the theater.

When I first lived in New York in the mid-1960s, the theater was thought to be pretty much a dying elephant in the city. Plays were old-fashioned and the best actors had gone on to be movie stars. I have an announcement to make. Great theater has made a roaring comeback, and it is not going away. If what I’ve seen in the last 12 months is any indication, there is still a need to explore our psyches and souls in this way. The playhouse was full, and not only with us greybeards either. There were all kinds of people in that audience, with all kinds of hair, from dreadlocks to perms and literally every color of the rainbow. Plays like this speak to a vital and dynamic audience, with a voice even we old-timers appreciate. I admit some of the rapid-fire dialogue went past me, but I was transfixed from the get-go.

Was it a star turn for Chris Rock? Not so much as it was an excellent vehicle to show him as an actor rather than just an insult comic, and he acquitted himself superbly. More than that, it was a production that grew out of love, from a theater company of actors who have worked together for years, from the Public Theater to Broadway—a playwright, Stephen Adly Guirgis, who wrote from his own heart for actors he knew; and a director, Anna D. Shapiro, who approached the material with simplicity and vigor. Even the scenery by Todd Rosenthal whirled about sleekly and seamlessly, and appeared to be a participant in the drama and comedy of these lives. It was an ensemble of equals, including Yul Vazquez in an ambiguous role of a light-in-his-loafers cousin balancing the volatile nature of the Cannavale macho man; and Annabella Sciorra, who radiated rage and tenderness as the broken-hearted ball-buster wife of the AA sponsor.

There is much in this play that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Our hearts are touched, we laugh, we are astonished. What more can we ask of live theater?


Howard Coward said...

Really inspiring piece,lady. Writing like this has far-reaching consequences. Not just the play writing, but your own review which touts a revered medium that's waiting in the wings. Who knows what fledgling actor or writer may be inspired by work like yours and theirs?

Mary Lois said...

This play and I together will provide CPR for the American theater! What power. Oh, and it takes a brave soul to dub himself Howard Coward.

Sonoita Lady said...

I saw Chris Rock interviewed recently, probably on Oprah, and they played a clip of the show. He's never been a performer I would go out of my way to see, but that interview changed my view of him. He is not only funny, he's damn smart! I know I would like the play, based on your brilliant review. Too bad I'm a couple thousand miles away...if they take it on the road, maybe I'll get a chance some day. In Tucson perhaps!

Mary Lois said...

I doubt if this show would work anywhere but NYC--but as I was leaving I realized somebody will probably make the mistake of making a movie out of it. It was just so GREAT on a stage, even if they didn't change a word of the script, a movie wouldn't capture the immediacy and dynamism of the play.

jacques mullet said...

"Everybidy Hates Chris" is a testament to Rock's all around
point of view in up bringing. If not watched by ML it oughta be watched.
Recently,I , too, saw Chris Rock on a TV talkie type show. I can guarantee it was not Oprah because I have never watched that, nor any other like it. He said that he was going to try to
stick with the scripted words and action , new thing for him. So, from your initial comments of anticipation, I can understand the thrill of Rock as a character.
I hope the bigger big time does not destroy him.
Slangy , rude , cursing to non-entity street language has little effect on me. I consider the source. It is more like a child using such language to get
attention, shock value. Some may not be able to communicate any other way. So,I do agree that if the characters of the sub-culture are the ones depicted, they should use the language they know in order to be convincing. I foecast the run as ML,short lived for NYC folks.
I wonder whether ML chanced to blush or smirk while there.

Mary Lois said...

The dialogue was brilliant. I laughed all the way through it and the fact that there was some strong language was not offensive. It was the way the characters talked--and the way that many people do. Nobody was out to shock. But I don't think Chris Rock will give up his career as a standup comic for a career in the theater, he's doing far too well at that.