NEW YORK — Stephen Adly Guirgis had written only 20 or so pages of “The [Expletive] With the Hat” when he was tempted to abandon the play.
Not because writing is a species of torment for him, though it is, or because he prefers acting “about a billion times more,” though he does. The problem looming in his path, shortly before his New York-based theater company gave a reading of the script for the first time, was that he had already spent so much of his playwriting career sketching similar terrain.
“I was like, I can’t do this. I can’t write another play where everybody’s screaming and cursing and, you know, they don’t have a job,” Guirgis (pronounced GEAR-gis) recalled recently. “I really felt like that: I gotta write a play about the Revolutionary War or something, or, like, French diplomats at tea. And then we had the reading, and it was pretty well received by everyone, including older board members who are, you know, discerning and even snobby about stuff.”
So, he decided, he’d do one more in that vein. The dark comedy it became was a Broadway hit with both audiences and critics in 2011. Starring Bobby Cannavale as Jackie, a newly paroled drug dealer struggling to live the 12-step life, and Chris Rock as his Big Book-spouting sponsor, “The [Expletive] With the Hat” was the Broadway debut of both Guirgis and LAByrinth Theater Company, the 20-year-old downtown ensemble where Guirgis is co-artistic director. SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of the play opens Sunday at the Boston Center for the Arts.
It was a few minutes past
11 a.m. on a sunny, late summer day when Guirgis, 47, arrived for a breakfast interview at a restaurant a couple of blocks from his Upper West Side apartment. He glided up on a bike, a cigarette between his lips, wearing shorts, sneakers, and a button-down shirt the color of the sky. It was rumpled, he soon explained, because he’d picked it up off the floor when he’d woken a few minutes earlier after writing all night, briefly napping, and nearly oversleeping. The average person in a similar situation might try to pass as functioning, but Guirgis seemed to need to delineate precisely how far short he’d fallen. He was on time? Well, he almost hadn’t been. Did you think these clothes looked clean? Well, they’re not.
“I’m just in this pressure dome, and I want to — I want to flee,” Guirgis said, affably enough, ticking off the causes of his tension between bites of bacon and eggs at a table outdoors. Deadlines were closing in: a television pilot for America Ferrera and ABC, and an adaptation of “The [Expletive] With the Hat” for HBO and Scott Rudin, one of the play’s Broadway producers. Guirgis has also promised a new play to LAByrinth, which premiered the other works for which he’s known, including “Jesus Hopped the A Train,” “Our Lady of 121st Street,” and “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot.”
A native New Yorker, Guirgis grew up on Riverside Drive in the West 80s, but his family had little money; their four-bedroom apartment, which is now his, was rent-controlled. Neighborhood conveniences like buying groceries at Zabar’s were a luxury. So was educating Guirgis nearby. His mother sent him instead to a Catholic school in Harlem.
“The best thing she ever did for me was send me to school uptown,” said Guirgis, whose plays reflect the ethnic and racial multiplicity he’s known since childhood. His work teems with troubled characters living chaotic lives in the shabbier pockets of Manhattan, speaking the vivid language of the street. That’s true, too, of “The [Expletive] With the Hat.”
“This is a very New York play,” said Jaime Carrillo, the actor who plays Jackie at SpeakEasy. A recent transplant to Boston, Carrillo spent the last decade in New York, working at the Classical Theatre of Harlem and elsewhere. “It is a certain slice of life of New York, but it is New York: very real, very nonjudgmental, very philosophical at times, but also very blunt, very direct — just not wasting any time.”
Guirgis views the play as a romantic comedy, though the couple we’re meant to root for is a little unconventional: volatile ex-con Jackie and his addict girlfriend, Veronica, still in love even as he grasps at recovery, and as she seems to have cheated on him with some guy who left his hat behind.
Up all night
However much Guirgis’s characters struggle to rein excess into moderation, the playwright himself seemed the other day to be a man trying to find a little serenity — to change the things he can, even if progress is slow.
Like a lot of artists, Guirgis confronts in his work the things that keep him up at night. Trouble is, writing also keeps him up. When he’s writing, a regular person’s schedule goes out the window. He works through the nights, sleeps through the days, isolates himself, procrastinates, smokes, smokes some more. If he doesn’t have someplace to be, hygiene slides off his list of priorities.
“My behaviors, or my actions, unconsciously begin to mirror symptoms of depression, even if I’m not depressed, and then I think, after a while, your body can’t really tell the difference,” he said. “It’s like, you go into a cave and you’re alone, and then when you come out, you’ve got a play, but then you look and feel and act like someone that’s been in a cave for months.”
A couple of years ago, he emerged from a different kind of sequestration. In 2006, when his mother died, he had moved from Hell’s Kitchen back into the apartment where he grew up, to be with his elderly father.
“Right in the beginning, almost as soon as I moved in to take care of him, it became like abundantly clear that at least I, myself, could not take care of him and me,” said Guirgis, whose 2008 play, “The Little Flower of East Orange,” explores similar themes using a fictional family with some parallels to his own, including a Riverside Drive address. “And the option of not taking care of him, to me, was not an option.”
So Guirgis didn’t take care of himself, and when his father died two years ago, that self-neglect was obvious, he said.
“It wouldn’t be melodramatic to say nobody would be shocked at that time if I had dropped dead of a heart attack. I was really overweight; I didn’t leave the house. I remember when I first moved in, I was afraid, like, if I left the house, he was gonna die. I was really not in good shape in any way. I was almost a hundred pounds heavier — yeah, I’ve lost like 85 pounds in a little less than two years. Everything was bad, and my head was bad, and my career was bad,” he said. “But I had written this play.”
The play was “The [Expletive] With the Hat,” and at first he thought it would be staged downtown like his others. Then it became apparent that producers wanted to bring it to Broadway.
“I was like, all right, I have to get it together,” Guirgis said, adding that, at the time, he couldn’t walk more than half a block without having to stop because of back trouble. And there were his nocturnal hours, which had to be reset if he wanted to attend rehearsals and stay awake through them. So he got a therapist, and he started working with a trainer who’d contacted him through Facebook. Guirgis used the opportunity of the Broadway production to reclaim some normalcy. Now the object is to keep that going.
“Because the play did well, it opened up some doors again in film and television that were closed,” he said. He’d messed up a lot of jobs in the past — as in, “take the job and just never write a word until they just have to fire you.” It wasn’t that he’d accepted the assignments intending to blow them, he explained, but that’s what he did. “Really lame,” he said. “I don’t know what the hell was going on in my head.”
‘Catastrophe of Success’
There’s an essay Guirgis likes, written by his favorite playwright, Tennessee Williams, and published in The New York Times in 1947, three years after “The Glass Menagerie” catapulted Williams from obscurity to stardom. The essay is about the necessity of struggle in a healthy human life and the danger of having it too easy, feeling too secure. Williams writes of the “spiritual dislocation” that is a hazard of what he terms “the catastrophe of Success.”
The validity of Williams’s argument aside, an aspect of it does raise a question: Is Guirgis afraid of being too successful?
“I think there’s people that know me who would say yes,” he said. “But I don’t know, you know. I think I’m afraid of everything.” He laughed.
It took Guirgis a long time to accept the fact that he’s a writer, because it’s not something he sought, he said; it’s just an aptitude he has, and one he consequently feels he has a responsibility to use “to write things that hopefully have some substance or meaning.”
“If it ever goes away, OK, then I’m off the hook,” he said. “But while it’s there, I gotta use it. And given that that’s my belief system, it makes sense to me that the plays tend to be the things that I actually follow through with and do, and the projects that are more about money tend to be the ones that I mess up royally.”
Wait a second. Present tense?
“That I had messed up royally,” he amended, “and I’m trying to avoid messing up currently.”
These days, Guirgis’s life bears less resemblance to the lives of the people in his plays than it once did. He buys all his food at Zabar’s now. That rumpled shirt on his back is from L.L. Bean; the sneakers on his feet are Adidas. “But, like, that’s recent. I mean, it’s really recent. That I wear nicer clothes,” he said. “And a very short time ago, and on the wrong day, I don’t think people would have any problem identifying me with the socioeconomic background of those characters.”
When Guirgis was younger, he was a huge fan of Bronx-born playwright John Patrick Shanley, now a Pulitzer Prize winner for “Doubt” and a LAByrinth member. Guirgis was drawn to Shanley’s gritty, early plays like “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea” and “Savage in Limbo.” Then he read “Women of Manhattan.”
“I remember I was like, what the [expletive] is this [expletive]?” he laughed.
Now he knows what it was: “Shanley moved out of the Bronx. He moved to Manhattan. He started dating a lot of women. And so he wrote a play that reflected where he was at.”
Guirgis also knows his own work will have to reflect somehow his own evolution. And so he worries that, in a couple of years, young people who love his current plays will react to a new one the way he did to “Women of Manhattan.”
But when they’re older, he figures, they’ll understand.