A long long time ago (December 5, 1941) a small thriller called Angel Street opened on Broadway, and it had one thing in common with The Motherf**ker With The Hat, in that both plays’ plots are moved forward by the discovery of a hat left on a table by someone who’d been in the room before the story began.
I bring up this odd coincidence to illustrate how different is theatre in 2011, at least insofar as language goes. For though today’s offering could not be called Angel Street (or Gaslight, its original name and the name of the film version of it), the little thriller from 1941 could well have exchanged titles with this major new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Except conventions of the 40s would never have permitted it. We still can’t spell out the name entirely, but the play itself has no such restrictions.
I’d put off seeing it since it opened April 11 because, frankly, I thought it would turn me off because I’m not fond of a) overly amplified sound and b) language that seems to substitute the “f” word for every adjective ever invented. Word trickled back though that this was a fine play with a top notch cast and as I can choose what I see, I chose to drop in on a recent matinee.
To put it bluntly, I was stunned.
Yes, every other word is filthy. The five characters who inhabit the play have been living in the seventh circle of hell for most of their lives. They look at the world around them and manage to claw their way through each day with little time for any of the niceties that are available to some, but never to them.
Jackie has just lost his job, and when we first meet him he’s spent the night with the one person in the world with whom he can find some comfort, his woman Veronica. But then he spots this hat, not his hat, and he explodes in a fit of jealous rage. He runs to his best friend Ralph who has found stability in a marriage with Victoria, and though Ralph’s apartment has all the right accoutrements for a happy home, we sense there is trouble even in that Tahiti.
Then there is Jackie’s cousin Julio whose needs are simple, but Julio has always been the runt of the litter to cousin Jackie for there is a caste system afloat in society even down to the newt, and to Jackie, Julio is the newt.
Mr. Guirgis has dumped these five desperately unhappy people into a cauldron, then turned up the heat to the point where they start from a 7 on the emotional scale and move within the 90 minutes of this marvelous play up to a 10, taking us with them to a tragic ending that somehow offers us the faintest wisp of hope. This is big time theatre, and it takes actors of talent, commitment and daring to bring it off. In these 5 they’re all there – giving performances that make it hard to believe can be delivered eight times a week.
Bobby Cannavale, whom I only recently discovered in film, towers over the play as Jackie, creating a character that is half lion in heat, half vulnerable puppy. Elizabeth Rodriguez as Veronica is there from the opening moment when she has a remarkable conversation with her mother on the phone, right through to her epiphany at the play’s end ninety minutes later. You can feel her anguish as she tries to throttle her insatiable need for Jackie because she is one wounded woman.
Chris Rock, known primarily as a very funny comic, here uses comedy to cover a truly solipsistic soul who has managed to live with himself by setting his own standards for proper behavior as husband and as friend. He is riveting and true and very welcome in this new medium called theatre.
Yul Vazquez has a take on Cousin Julio that is original and hilarious and, with the aria he’s given by the author deep in the heart of the play, he brings chills with his hidden strength. Annabella Sciorra offers solid support as his wife Victoria.
Lesson learned: pre-judge nothing. I almost missed this play, very much a portrait of an aspect of today’s society with which I wasn’t familiar. These people are so very human, so totally understandable that you leave the theatre wishing you could help, knowing you cannot, but also aware that they will somehow survive and some will overcome and rise above the rotten deal they were handed. This play resonates and will remain with me for a long time, doing what good theatre should – informing, illuminating.
It’s been done before, but Strindberg and O’Neill and Williams and Kushner and Euripides were not Latino. Mr. Guirgis knows his people, and because he is specific about them, they are universal, and they reach out and touch us all. I heartily recommend this play and its production under the direction of Anna D. Shapiro (August: Osage County) who got it right.
Broadway performer, agent, writer, and now librettist, among his many accomplishments, Richard Seff has written the book for Shine! The Horatio Alger Musical!, which debuted at the 2010 New York Musical Theatre Festival. He is also author of Supporting Player: My Life Upon the Wicked Stagecelebrating his lifetime on stage and behind the scenes, available through online booksellers, including Amazon.com.
- Richard Seff interviews Broadway luminaries:
- Carole Shelley
- Brian d’Arcy James
- Chita Rivera
- John Kander, With Complete Kander
Richard Seff chats with Joel Markowitz: