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theatre review

Ted Dykstra and Nicole Stamp in Stephen Adly Guirgis’s provocatively titled play.

Hearing obscenities onstage is nothing new, but every now and then a playwright has the cojones to actually drop an F-bomb in a play's title. British writer Mark Ravenhill did it in the 1990s with the play that a blushing New York Times referred to as Shopping and …. American Stephen Adly Guirgis did it again a few years ago with what a slightly less prudish Playbill magazine called The Motherf**ker With the Hat. One thing you can say of the tactic: It sure grabs attention. Especially if, as in the case of Guirgis's comedy, it becomes a Tony-nominated Broadway vehicle for Chris Rock.

Not that Guirgis needs such a ploy. His 2011 play, getting an impressive Toronto premiere from indie newcomer Bob Kills Theatre, is an explosively funny farce about addicts – recovering and otherwise – that is as delightfully poetic as it is casually profane. Not only that, it's also an insightful drama about trust and betrayal, and the mental gymnastics required to justify morally dubious choices.

The play opens in the apartment of Veronica (Melissa D'Agostino), a New York Puerto Rican hairdresser, as she carries on a high-speed telephone conversation with her mother. Her motor mouth may be just natural Latina exuberance, or it could have something to do with those rails of cocaine she keeps snorting. Then there's her bottle of vodka, which she keeps unaccountably stashing under the sofa.

The reason for her secrecy becomes apparent after her long-time boyfriend Jackie (Sergio Di Zio) arrives home. A just-released ex-con and recovering alcoholic, he's bursting with excitement as he reveals he's landed a job. But his joy turns to suspicion when he sniffs Aqua Velva on the bed pillows and spots a stranger's hat on the table. Clearly, Veronica has something more than booze to hide.

The discovery of Veronica's infidelity threatens Jackie's tenuous grasp on sobriety. For help, he turns to his AA sponsor, Ralph (Ted Dykstra), a smooth-talking, fruit-smoothie-sipping dude whose pep talks are somewhat undermined by the presence of his tyrannical wife (Nicole Stamp). At the same time, Jackie procures a handgun, bent on confronting his hat-wearing rival. But after some foolish gunplay he leaves the firearm in the care of Julio (Juan Chioran), his loving if slightly creepy cousin.

The identity of the hat owner is revealed early on, allowing Guirgis to deal instead with the lives of his messed-up characters. In the play's gritty, working-class milieu, everyone is or has been addicted; but the real problem isn't with substances, it's with taking responsibility for one's actions. The playwright, deeply serious beneath his raucous comic exterior, questions a modern attitude in which self-gratification trumps everything else.

Guirgis, whose previous works include The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, is a major new voice in American theatre. In Toronto, however, he seems fated to have his plays produced by little indie companies in makeshift venues. While The Motherfucker With the Hat made its Canadian debut last year on the mainstage of Calgary's Alberta Theatre Projects, here it's being presented in The Coal Mine, a new 65-seat basement theatre on the Danforth that's not much bigger than your average rec room. Most of the space is devoted to the stage, with the audience sitting along the walls. The result is literally an in-yer-face theatre experience, allowing us to watch such polished pros as Dykstra and Chioran in unforgiving close-up.

For the most part the actors measure up to the scrutiny – especially a riveting Chioran, who almost walks off with the show as the solicitous, intensely Puerto Rican – and possibly gay – Julio. It's a mark of Guirgis's adroit writing that Julio is at once a hilariously absurd figure with a Jean-Claude Van Damme fixation and a wise and poignantly lonely man – twin aspects that Chioran deftly nails.

Dykstra, re-imagining the Chris Rock role as a middle-aged white guy, is almost as good. With a handlebar mustache and greasy hair pulled into the world's smallest ponytail, his Ralph is equal parts sincerity and sleaze. Like one of those gutter philosophers in a David Mamet play, he makes the man's specious reasons for bad behaviour almost sound sensible. But Dykstra hasn't yet immersed himself enough in the part to effectively communicate its underlying pathos.

Di Zio, however, does a powerful job of conveying Jackie's angry confusion. And D'Agostino is totally convincing as a sexy but strident Veronica, capturing both the alluring and maddening qualities that drive Jackie crazy. Stamp is fine but miscast as Victoria, Ralph's bitter wife. When the svelte actress admits that her body is going to pot – a speech meant to indicate her character's self-awareness – she instead seems laughably delusional.

Veteran Layne Coleman has directed the show with economy on Steve Lucas's drab-looking, all-purpose set. His staging is appropriately raw and visceral, with moments of violence that make you gasp. At the same time, he wisely eschews some full-frontal male nudity indicated in the script. That might have been taking the in-yer-face experience a little too far.