Can Chris Rock the Tony Awards?

Chris Rock made his Broadway debut in the dark comedy “The Motherf**ker with the Hat” Monday and earned the respect of some of the the town’s toughest theater critics. This is the first rialto production for playwright Stephen Adley Gurgis who has been the darling of the downtown theater scene for such works as “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.”

This new work tells the tale of two men, Ralph and Jackie. As Ralph, Rock is the AA sponsor of recovering addict Jackie, a part played by Emmy champ Bobby Cannavale (“Will & Grace”) who also earned plaudits. Jackie becomes unhinged, convinced that his girlfriend is having an affair after he find’s a man’s hat in her apartment.

For New York Times scribe Ben Brantley, “This is by far the most accomplished and affecting work from the gifted Mr. Guirgis, a prolific and erratic chronicler of marginal lives.” As he noted, “For much of the play the power belongs to Ralph, who wields phrases like “the cycle of self-sabotage” in the style of a pistol-twirling gunslinger. As a professional stand-up seducer (which even insult comic have to be), Mr. Rock fits the part effortlessly.”

Elysa Gardner of USA Today praised both leading men: “Cannavale is a ferociously compelling Jackie, embracing the character’s pain and his flaws but also conveying a certain rough dignity. Rock proves both a bold and canny choice for Ralph, a less sympathetic figure. More likable and less palpably ego-driven than many comedians of his generation, Rock doesn’t exude the kind of crass narcissism that the sponsor eventually reveals. But he brings to the part, in addition to the expert comic punch you’d expect, a cool joviality that actually makes Ralph’s lack of true empathy even creepier.”

And AP critic Mark Kennedy wrote, “The play explores how weak we are but also how strong.It is dark and sad and moving and extremely profane, but somehow Guirgis has found dark humor and a sort of lyricism as the four-lettered invectives spew out. He also has found in Anna D. Shapiro, who won a Tony Award for ‘August: Osage County,’ a director familiar with handling both foul language and savage arguments.

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