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A CurtainUp Review
Our Lady of 121st Street

What, I can't relate a little anecdote? —Rooftop

What you can do, sir, is confess—Father Lux

Dag, you all business, aint'cha, Father?. . .no prelude nuthin-- just spit it out. . .Still, even Hank Aaron hit a few off the practice tee before he stepped up to the rock --gotta marinate before ya grill, right?—Rooftop

This is not a 'Cook-out,' sir. . .No charcoal, no anecdotes, no franks and beans. . .This is, . not a 'Conversational' but a 'confessional'— Father Lux, losing all patience with the garrulous Rooftop.
our lady 121
Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Hill Harper (Photo: Monique Carboni)
It's been fifteen years since I first saw Our Lady of 121st Street with the sadly no longer with us Philip Seymour Hoffman directing members of the adventurous LAByrinth Theater Company in their first outing in a larger theater. I don't remember all the details of the funereal mayhem Stephen Adly Guirgis concocted to bring a dozen inter connected characters to life in and around a house of death: The Ortiz Funeral Home in Harlem.

However, I do recall how much I enjoyed the way a stolen corpse caper (not to mention a stolen pair of pants) turns that funeral home into a crime scene; and that the theft ends up being a red herring— a device for initiating a series of verbal pas-de-deux or trois character-defining scenes for a big cast of terrific actors. Guirgis sent me out of the Union Square Theater without the character who's a detective explaining the hows and whys of the robbery, but he did weave all those episodic interchanges into a memorably hilarious very dark human comedy.

What a treat then to have Our Lady of 121st Street join Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train as part of his Signature residency. For theatergoers too young to have seen the original production, these residency productions are better late than never opportunities to see a much lauded playwright's early work.

For old-timers like me, this latest offering of Our Lady. . . is a chance to see it with a new cast and director. This always demands resisting the impulse to compare. In the case of comedies with laugh lines that practically drowned out the actors, a new production must prove that the funny business still holds up. And the performances must prove that these characters are not an exclusive gift for one group of actors.

Though Philip Hoffman had a special affinity for Guirgis's F-Bomb loaded, not too grammatic vernacular and often raucous characters, Phylicia Rashad too is an actor-director. She's assembled an excellent top to bottom ensemble and competently guided them to prove that Guirguis's characters do indeed have enough color and humanity.

Watching the play this time, I was struck more than ever by the metaphoric aspects of that red herring device. The missing body of the title's Lady symbolizes the emotional equilibrium that went missing from Sister Rose's own life, as well as that of many of the students who experienced both her beatings and nurturing.

Since Detective Balthazar (Joey Auzenne) was also one of the nun's students he's going to be telling us more about his own painful loss of a beloved son, than details of the body snatchers' motives and methods. That makes the real investigator here the playwright. But the mystery he wants to solve is to find out what happened to make the never seen Sister Rose's life and the lives who come to mourn her death from alcoholism so filled with pain and unresolved anger.

That said, the play's first scene does begin with a nod to that whodunit device. We find Detective Balthazar (Joey Auzenne) interrogating Victor (John Procaccino), the mourner who lost his pants while he slept in the church instead of going home. Victor is infuriated at a world that can let things like this happen. As he puts it "If Rudy were still in office, this woulda Never Happened —i'm sure of it! He wouldn't of took this Lyin' down for two seconds." Rudy is of course the former New York Mayor— the same Rudy who is currently busy trying to keep Donald Trump in the White House.

Each of the scenes that follows ends with the current set of characters exiting as the next group enters (in some cases, for a coninuation of an earlier interchange). Thus, as Detective Balthazar arranges for a police car to take Victor home to Staten Island, the stage is set for what is probably the most hilarious and longest confession and by the play's funniest and most fully developed character, Rooftop (Hill Harper), so nicknamed because he's very tall.

The obstreperous Rooftop is a successful Los Angeles DJ who's come to New York hoping Sister Rose's funeral will enable him to reuinite with Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) the ex-wife who still hasn't forgiven his chronic unfaithfulness, especially with her friend Norca (Paola Lazaro). The confession we watch, his first in thirty years, is to the church's Father Lux (John Doman). The confessor is understandably put off by Rooftop's smoking, cussing and garrulousness and urges him to remeber that this is not a "conversational" but a "confessional." Despite all the bluster, the "conversational" does eventually move into confessional territory.

Naturally, some of the other scenes also bring Inez and Norca on stage. Other mourners whose relationships explode include Flip (Jimonn Cole) a successful lawyer and Gail (Kevin Isola), an unsuccessful actor Flip wants to act less Gay in the setting of his Harlem childhood. A more touching relationship involves Edwin (Erick Betancourt) a neighborhood Super whose guilt about causing his brother Pinky's (Maki Borden) mental frailty has made him commit himself to being his keeper. There are also two minor characters making a major impression are Sister Rose's highly allergic and hysteria prone niece Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba) and Sonia (Dierdre Friel) an outlier from Connecticut whose only reason for being there seems to be to keep Marcia company.

Typical of Signature's productions, this Our Lady of 121st Street is supported by handsome and sophisticated stagecraft. The building with a large sign identifying it as the Ortiz Funeral home that set designer Walt Spangler has positioned upstage clarifies that the various other rotating set pieces are located in the church as well a nearby restaurant and a bar. The rest of the design team also does excellent work. It all adds up to a production, that may not have the intimate feel of the very first staging in the LABrynth's own modest home, but it strongly supports the fluidity of the transitions from desperately comic confrontations to down deep revelations.

To sum up, since this is a play masquerading as a whodonit you may expect Detective Balthazar to stop grieving over his son and bring the missing corpse case to a really satisfactory close. But as already noted, the detective in charge of this eventful funeral is Stephen Adly Guirgis and he's no Sherlock Holmes. But then neither does he allow a guilt and anger free happy ending. But then that's life. And life with all its difficulties is what Our Lady of 121st Street is all about.

Links to Stephen Adly Guirgis reviewed at Curtainup (last performed first)
Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train Part of this season's residency at the Signature
Between Riverside and Crazy 2015 Pulitzer
Motherf**Ker With The Hat Broadway 2011
The Little Flower of East Orange- 2008
The Last Days of Judas Iscarion 2005
Den of Thieves

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Our Lady of 121st Street by Stephen Adley Guirgis
Directed by Phylicia Rashad.
Cast (in order of appearance: John Procaccino(Victor), Joey Auzenne(Balthahaar), John Doman(Father Lux), Jimonn Cole(Flip),Hill Harper (Rooftop), Kevin Isola (Gail), Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Inez), Paola Lazaro(Norca),Erick Betancourt(Edwin), Maki Borden(Pinky), Stephanie Kurtzuba(Marcia), Dierdre Friel(Sonia).
Walt Spangler -Scenic Design
Alexis Forte-Costume Design
Keith Parham-Lighting Design
Robert Kaplowitz -Sound Design
Cookie Jordan-Hair & wigs
Stage Manager: Charles M. Turner III
Running Time: 2 hours, includes 1 intermission
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center 480 West 42nd Street
From 5/01/18; opening 5/20/18; closing 6/17/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/16/18 press preview

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