Flor De Liz Perez and Alec Newman in 'The Motherf**ker with the Hat'. Photo: Mark Douet

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The programme for Stephen Adly Guirgis’s blisteringly funny, raucously rude and unexpectedly tender play about love and addiction has two strategically placed stars in the title. It’s as well it doesn’t reproduce a passage of text: it would resemble the Milky Way.

Guirgis’s characters curse hard, often and with enthusiasm, yet there is a curious innocence about them. Over the course of Indhu Rubasingham’s fizzing, beautifully acted new production (the play’s UK premiere) you grow fond of these flawed individuals fighting to subdue their demons and put up a credible front as adults.

It starts all sweetness and light as Jackie, ex-con and dealer with more habits than a nunnery, rolls in to see his childhood sweetheart Veronica. After 22 months inside he is a new man: sober, straight, the bearer of good news — he’s got a job — and flowers. But there’s a crackling tension in the air. Sure enough, it takes one small thing — a stranger’s hat in the middle of Veronica’s tiny, mussed up Times Square bedsit — to send Jackie off course. For the rest of the play, this big, bearlike New Yorker (superbly played by Ricardo Chavira) clings perilously to sobriety like a man on a rope bridge over a gully.

He’s not alone. Advice is easy to come by, as Jackie rattles round New York to his sponsor Ralph, who is awash with health drinks and self-help books, and to his cousin Julio, whose gentle, camp demeanour is at odds with his enthusiasm for martial arts.

But as the play unfolds, it becomes clearer just who is using whom and who is addicted to what. Ralph talks the talk about “nice nutritional beverages”, but his motives for separating Jackie from Veronica become increasingly murky. Alec Newman deftly picks his way through the character’s specious moral relativism as he tries to talk up betrayal as a favour.

There’s great work too from Nathalie Armin as Ralph’s acidly angry wife and from Flor De Liz Perez as damaged wildcat Veronica, while Yul Vázquez is wonderfully eccentric as Julio. Even Robert Jones’s set seems unstable: locations glide in and out of view and spindly New York fire escapes reach up out of the darkness as if taunting the characters struggling to climb out of their sorry selves. It’s a staging that delivers both the giddying, verbal virtuosity of the play and the undertow of pain beneath it.

To August 20, nationaltheatre.org.uk

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