A Dozen Steps to Broadway

April 9, 2011


"I tend to write about the stuff that keeps me up at night," said the New York-bred playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, whose Broadway debut, "The Motherf— with the Hat," will have its world premiere April 11 at the Schoenfeld Theatre.

The play, which revolves around two couples struggling through Alcoholics Anonymous, is a funny and unsanctimonious look into the frequent messiness of living clean and sober. Many of the characters wrestle not just with intoxicants, but with refraining from bedding other people's spouses.

You won't find a single role model in the bunch. "What is true is that those programs are perfect in and of themselves," said Mr. Guirgis, 45 years old, who declined to discuss if he had any personal experience with 12-step programs. "But the people in them are a work in progress."

AA's underground circuit of meetings is a world protected by anonymity, and one that isn't often represented with the kind acerbic wit characteristic of Mr. Guirgis's work. But he didn't intend the play to be a critique of the program. "I'm not picking a bone with 12-step," he said. "It's kind of like if you write a play about America, and it's not all about saluting a flag, some people will say you're un-American."

.Moreover, he said, he hoped there was an "unspoken question" that his play asked audience members about their own spiritual practice, whether that occurs within AA, or a synagogue, or a yoga studio. "Can [it] withstand scrutiny? I think that's a healthy question."

Mr. Guirgis wrote the first scenes of "Hat" at a 2009 summer retreat for New York 's LAByrinth Theater Company, of which he is a co-artistic director. The play was workshopped at the Ojai Playwrights Festival the next summer, after which the Public Theater's artistic director, Oskar Eustis, came aboard. He was followed by producer Scott Rudin, who felt, Mr. Guirgis said, the play deserved a wider audience.

Mr. Guirgis, who has had an award-winning string of Off-Broadway successes with "The Little Flower of East Orange," "Our Lady of 121st St.," "Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train" and "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," said he made no creative concessions to Broadway, nor was he encouraged to by his producers. "No pre-conditions, no changes," he said. "Even the title—I kind of waited to hear something like that but it never came."

The cast includes Bobby Cannavale, Annabella Sciorra, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Yul Vazquez, but its big ticket-seller is comedian Chris Rock, who was brought in by Mr. Rudin. "He came in and auditioned, and we went to dinner and talked," Mr. Guirgis said. "And by the end of the dinner, what I saw was that this guy was one of us—basically a New York City guy, born and raised, who was really wanting to do the work."

Mr. Rock's character, Ralph, is the AA sponsor for Mr. Cannvale's Jackie, and the two share a twisted relationship. "His behaviors are that of a very dry drunk," Mr. Guirgis said of Ralph. "They say, you can't be too dumb too recover, but you can be too smart. And I think the character he plays is a little too smart."

At a preview on March 19, Mr. Rock's performance was inconsistent: In certain scenes, he was in tune with his castmates and capable of sending the audience into uproarious laughter; at other times, he appeared unsure of his lines and blocking in a way that dissipated the high-voltage dialogue. "He didn't come with a lot of stage experience," said Mr. Guirgis. "We knew there was a huge leap to make and he knew it, too. What's especially amazing to me is that his performance grows nightly. This guy gives his all, goes home, and works on the script."

For Mr. Guirgis, the debut of his play is a return to where his ambition began. Growing up on the Upper West Side, his mother brought him to see Broadway shows every couple of years, he said—"but she talked about theater all of the time." As a 20-year-old college student, he attended a performance of "Burn This!" starring John Malkovich at the Schoenfeld that stirred him sufficiently to become a theater major at SUNY at Albany. Now 25 years later his play will run in the same theater.

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