The National has long had a special way with arresting productions of American plays — Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross famously had its world premiere at the National's Cottesloe Theatre (as it then was) in 1983, while his 1988 play Speed-the-Plow had its UK premiere there in 1989, a year after it had debuted on Broadway.
Now Rufus Norris, newly installed as artistic director of the National, serves early notice that his eye for a hit is equal to that of his predecessors by giving house room the UK premiere of this 2011 Broadway play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, a major playwrighting voice whose latest play Between Riverside and Crazy has just won him this years Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Here's a play whose confrontational tone is set right from the off in its title, unprintable in many places — yet an everyday term of colloquial usage, so why is the world being so squeamish? These characters are, not to put too fine a point on it, fucked up; but the play charts their variously flawed, sometimes failed but always striving attempts to deal with it with searing honesty (in the midst of the lies that they tell themselves and each other) and a shattering intensity.
Across nearly two unbroken hours, we are alternately gripped, appalled, provoked and left in sorrowful wonder at a play that tackles the subject of addiction, betrayal and dishonesty with brutal yet tender feeling, as it follows Jackie, a former drug dealer, newly released from prison, as he seeks to now stay clean with the help of his AA sponsor. In the opening scene, he has secured a new job and is about to get it on from his girlfriend — a still-using drug taker — when he sees a hat in the room that doesn't belong to him as she takes a shower. He then starts sniffing the bedsheets — and notices the musk of another man who, he is sure, has been there before him.
As suspicions become fact, Guirgis keeps the motor of a spiralling plot by turns buoyant, hilarious and poignant. It is thrilling contemporary writing — and given a production to match of furious vigour and rigour by Indhu Rubasingham.
Three of the cast of five have been imported from America, and the authenticity shows. The magnificent Ricardo Chavira (best known for his role on TV's Desperate Housewives) is a picture of swaggering machismo as Jackie, yet also full of deep-rooted conflicts about fundamental decency as the reformed dealer desperately trying to maintain his sobriety. As girlfriend Veronica, Flor De Liz Perez is no less skilful at portraying the ambivalence of need and desire she moves between. And offering a mediating warmth yet full of violent undercurrents, Yul Vazquez (reprising a role he first took in the play's original Broadway outing) is superb as Jackie's cousin Julio.
There are also wonderful turns from Alec Newman as AA sponsor Ralph and Nathalie Armin as Ralph's girlfriend Victoria, each with demons of their own. This is an electrifying production of an electrifying play.
"... this Tony-nominated play is gloriously funny and blisteringly honest as it shows its flawed, working-class personnel grappling with an unholy mess of addiction, infidelity, health-food and higher powers in contemporary New York."
Paul Taylor for The Independent
"It is the gap between the often tawdry reality of the characters’ lives and their recognition of the values of loyalty, trust and duty that makes the play both funny and profound."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"This is a triumph for the National."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard