Experiments at the Lab: How a Motherfucker Is About to Make the LAByrinth a Hit

As for the LAB’s Rudin move itself, Mr. Cannavale drew an analogy to indie film. “It’s like that; you get to fulfill the auteur’s vision, but every filmmaker wants to get picked up by a good studio, whether they tell you they do or not.”

Rehearsal was scheduled for 1 p.m. and around 12:20 p.m. Mr. Cannavale poked his head out from behind the staircase near stage right like a Whack-a-Mole to ask if the Tony-toting director, Anna Shapiro, had arrived yet. She hadn’t, but several minutes later, Annabella Sciorra strode casually though the aisle of the orchestra in an olive green fedora and striped St. James mariner’s shirt. The actress, best known for her Sopranos turn, plays Chris Rock’s wife in the show.

The set sat quietly as a bustle took place in the orchestra below. A winding fire escape climbed like Jack’s Beanstalk through the ceiling of the stage while center stage was occupied by an apartment interior, the walls painstakingly perfected to create the appearance of paint-flaking disrepair–the kind of poor urban scene that the LAB is known for. A bookshelf displayed colored glass religious candles next to a fern whose serrated leaves hung buoyantly over the edge of the shelf.

Mr. Guirgis, who joined the company in 1992, in its first year, as one of two non-Latino members (the other was Sam Rockwell), insisted that being on Broadway was still merely a matter of location, even with the Hollywood infusion. “I think that the theater world, it’s just like a family: Sometimes you go stay with your cousins, sometimes you stay home for Thanksgiving,” he said of the show’s venue.

Speaking of family, the LAB’s three current artistic directors–Mimi O’Donnell, Yul Vazquez and Mr. Guirgis, who took over for John Ortiz and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2009–are all involved in the Broadway production. Ms. O’Donnell, who is the longtime partner of Philip Seymour Hoffman, with whom she has three children, is designing the costumes; Mr. Vasquez is in the cast.

Even with the LAB’s history of gritty, realist portraits of inner-city underdogs, the company seems to understand the power of celebrity. They are famous for their annual fund-raiser Celebrity Charades–Julia Roberts participated in 2009–and boast a roster of star members, including Sam Rockwell, Eric Bogosian, Ugly Betty‘s Ana Ortiz and Dexter‘s David Zayas.

“Billy Crudup is always asking when he can be a member,” said Mr. Vazquez, who looks like the rebellious younger brother Tyrone Power never had. At the LAB offices, he wore a Levi’s denim vest embroidered with LTC NYC across the back, and periodically checked his BlackBerry.

“The people with the bigger names, they bring what that brings, and every company needs that,” Philip Seymour Hoffman, the company’s brightest name, told The Observer. “If you have a play with Sam Rockwell or myself or Eric Bogosian or any number of our members, you bring in more resources and attention. That’s just the way it works.”

At LAByrinth’s midtown office, Ms. O’Donnell, the second artistic director, told The Observer she liked to think of the company as a home base that members return to after they’re famous. “Since a lot of us have been together so long, you get into a room and there’s an unspoken relationship. You don’t have to go through the ‘Oh, hi, how are you?’ Even if people are new, they get sucked in right away.” She snapped her fingers, the nails of which were manicured in glossy maroon varnish.

“There’s a shorthand that happens,” added Mr. Vazquez. “You’re not coming here because you think you’re going to get your musical done and it’s going to run for 17 years and you’re going to become a billionaire,” he explained, “You’re here because you’re passionate about this and you want to challenge yourself.”

Still, the lure of Broadway and the sheen of Hollywood are indisputable. “It took a while, but we finally got there. They said we couldn’t fucking do it,” Mr. Vazquez
smiled and leaned back balancing his chair on it’s two hind legs, “and we did it with The Motherfucker With the Hat!”

Back at rehearsal, Mr. Guirgis was unfazed by his production’s ascent to OZ. Watching as the tech crew set up the stage and the actors milled about, Mr. Guirgis shook his head. “I’ll be just as happy if we kick ass here, and I’ll be just as unhappy if we don’t kick ass here as I would be at a 99-seat theater.”

cmalle@observer.com