Geoffrey Lower and Caroline Kinsolving in "Chapter Two" at the Laguna Playhouse.

Geoffrey Lower and Caroline Kinsolving in "Chapter Two" at the Laguna Playhouse. (Courtesy Laguna Playhouse / January 16, 2013)

Once you get beyond the play's title, you'll more than likely find South Coast Repertory's new production, "The [Expletive] With the Hat," is a grim and gripping urban drama laced with moments of outrageous hilarity.

The play's blatantly comedic elements effectively set up the visceral dramatic sequences in Stephen Adly Guirgis' richly raucous and ribald romp on SCR's Julianne Argyros Stage under the relentless direction of Michael John Garces.

The play unfolds in a seedy underbelly of New York City, where drug abuse and alcoholism run rampant and sexual tension bubbles over. Underscoring this scenario is the series of fragmented settings created by scenic designer Nephelie Andonyadis and bolstered by Leah Piehl's gritty costumes and Tom Ontiveros' stark lighting designs.

The central character, Jackie (Tony Sancho), has just returned from a prison stint to find that his girlfriend, Veronica (Elisa Bocanegra), has a stranger's hat on her bedroom table, hence the play's title. Discovery of the identity of the hat's owner becomes a critical issue in a volatile relationship.

Attempting to calm the storm is Ralph D. (Larry Bates), Jackie's AA sponsor, whose imprint on the plot magnifies as the play progresses. Fringe characters include Ralph's wife Victoria (Cristina Frias) and Jackie's strange cousin Julio (Christian Barillas).

Sancho's emotions simmer and boil in a commendable performance. However, it's the raw vocal power of Bates (who also impressed in SCR's "Fences," "Topdog/Underdog" and "Jitney") that commands the second act. These two actors are thrust into a seething faceoff late in the play that will have audience members on the edge of their seats.

Bocanegra delivers a searing performance of lusty abandon, her ample body clad in bra and panties for much of the show. Frias, with less input, punctuates her scenes beautifully, while Barillas takes on a nebulously written character that tends to dissolve amid the high-voltage histrionics.

Dialogue in the key of F pervades the SCR show, much of it unleashed at the top of actors' voices. The playwright claims his work is "about growing up, accepting responsibility," but Garces' production leans heavily on dramatic tension, laced by moments of high comedy.

It's a fierce body blow to the senses at South Coast Repertory.

*

A new reading of 'Chapter Two'

Only Neil Simon could find belly laughs in a story of a man emotionally ravaged by the death of his wife — a circumstance that he himself had recently endured.

Simon's great loss — and the rediscovery of romance with actress Marsha Mason — inspired his 1973 comedy "Chapter Two," now on stage at the Laguna Playhouse under the crisp staging of the theater's former artistic director, Andrew Barnicle.

There are punch lines aplenty in the first act of this sprightly revival, as a novelist reaches tentatively for a relationship while still tormented by his personal tragedy. But the honeymoon's over in a hurry — too much of a hurry — in the second as the protagonists go at each other like George and Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

Simon's sudden shift of gears is jarring, and basically without foundation, save for the universal playwrights' directive that any script's two lovers must first be driven apart so that they may reconcile in the end. Little motivation is offered for the split other than the novelist's lingering grief.

This would be more of a problem were it not for the capabilities of Barnicle's terrific cast, headed by Geoffrey Lower as the bereft writer and Caroline Kinsolving as the divorced actress who rescues and loves him. Both are pitch-perfect in their interpretations, with Kinsolving hitting both the comic and dramatic high notes with superior voltage.

Lower, as the playwright's doppelganger, skillfully enacts the initial encounter, covering his nervousness with witty remarks, as one might expect from a man of letters. Kinsolving allows her reticence to vanish as her attraction mounts, then brings a Vesuvius-like temper to bear when the luster fades (shortly after the wedding).

Providing comic relief in a comedy are Kevin Ashworth as Lower's roue of a brother, married but still chalking up conquests, and Leslie Stevens as Kinsolving's buddy, pursuing the elusive meaningful relationship.

Simon gives Ashworth's character a lengthy, and superfluous, scene as he attempts to slow Kinsolving's romantic pace for the sake of his still-wounded brother. Stevens, likewise, has an extended diatribe about her thwarted affair while clad only in a bedsheet.

Set and costume designer Bruce Goodrich has given the principals contrasting apartment settings, given their economic status — spacious and well-furnished for him and limited in dimension for her. Sound and lighting effects, by Corinne Carrillo and Donald Guy, respectively, are excellent.

"Chapter Two" is Neil Simon's most personal project in a career that spans more than a half century. It's given a rousing revival by a splendid company at the Laguna Playhouse.

If You Go

What: "The [Expletive] With the Hat"

Where: South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays until Jan. 27

Cost: $20 to $70

Information: (714) 708-5555 or http://www.scr.org

If You Go

What: "Chapter Two"

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays (with additional performances at 7 p.m. Jan. 20 and 2 p.m. Jan. 24) until Feb. 3

Cost: $35 to $65

Information: (949) 497-2787 or http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com