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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Our Lady of 121st Street

Yes, she could be wild, mean sometimes, she had a big stick and she knew howta use it, believe me, but, ask any kid who grew 'round a hundred-twenty-first, and if they're being honet? They'll tell ya something special she done for them. . .cuz. . .thase who she was. . .and thass why so many people are turnin' up outta the woodwork here, 'cuz in their heart? -- they know. . . . They know she was. . .that she was Our Lady, ya know? ---Edwin
A dead nun's body has vanished during her wake. So have one of the mourners' (Richard Petrocelli) pants. The cop (Felix Solis) in charge has closed the room holding the mysteriously empty casket so a crime scene squad can look for clues.

If this sounds like a variation on Body Snatchers or a police procedural with a twist of piety, it is, but it isn't. The mystery of who absconded with Sister Rose's body (Rose being the Our Lady of Our Lady of 121st Street) is a red herring. Its aim is to bring the more colorful of the mourners together, some for the first time in years, to air their grievances with life and each other. The real mystery under investigation by playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis is to discover what happened to make Sister Rose's life and the lives she came in contact with so filled with pain and unresolved anger.

These mourners are a motley assortment of men and women who grew up in the Harlem parish where Sister Rose applied her mix of beatings and nurturing -- the effect of the latter accounting for the large turnout at her wake. All are damaged in countless ways, including Sister Rose, an alcoholic who came to her calling with a bag stuffed with memories of a dysfunctional family.

As Our Lady is not really a whodunit, neither is it a tragedy. In fact, it's the comic incongruity of the various encounters that give the play its spark. While plenty of heartache in the form of guilt, regrets and fear surfaces as Guirgis' losers interact in pairs and trios on the Union Square's spacious stage, it does so hilariously.

Under Philip Seymour Hoffman's sure-handed direction the superb ensemble of actors play their parts and deliver the playwright's juicy vernacular with dead on timing. The laughs they evoke don't obliterate the aches embedded into their psyches like ingrown toenails.

From the bookend character of Felix Solis's wonderfully layered detective who has his own personal story to unspool to Sonia, a young outsider (Melissa Feldmanman) who's come to keep Sister Rose's niece Marcia (Elizabeth Canavan) company, all have their place in this funereal mayhem. Yet none of their encounters give the proceedings a conventional plot arc. Instead each scene is something of an independent vignette with the funeral interruptus and the persona of the dead nun serving as a connecting thread.

Each pas-de-deux or trois ends with a link to the next. As Balthazaar (the detective) arranges for a police car to take Victor (the man of the stolen pants) home to Staten Island, the stage is set for what is probably the play's funniest and most fully developed character, Walter "Rooftop " Desmond (the rooftop tall, irrepressibly funny Ron Cephas Jones) to make his first confession in more years than he can remember.

Rooftop and his confessor Father Lux (Mark Hammer) deservedly get to play repeat scenes outside as well as in the confessional. To give you just a taste of their rib-tickling exchanges, here are some excerpts of Father Lux's attempts to shortcircuit Rooftop's diversionary talk and get him to start confessing:

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

Father Lux: "What you can do, sir, is confess"

Rooftop: "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?"

Father Lux: "This is not a 'Cook-out,' sir. . .No charcoal, no anecdotes, no franks and beans. . .This is, in fact, a Confessional, sir. A confessional-- not a 'Conversational'. . ."

The cornucopia of other relationships include: Flip (Russel G. Jones) and Gail (Scott Hudson), the first a lawyer who can't acknowledge their homosexual relationship in the setting of his childhood in the Projects, the latter an out-of-work, untalented actor who's in denial about his alcoholism; Edwin (David Zayas) is a neighborhood Super who is commited to unhappily acting as his retarded brother Pinky's (Al Roffe) keeper; Pinky, in turn, yearns for Norca (Liza Colon-Zayas) a woman who attracts trouble and sees the funeral as a chance to let by-gones by by-gones with Inez (Portia). The bygones relate to Portia having slept wih Inez's chronically faithless first husband (Rooftop) whom she hasn't been able to forgive despite all her bible reading.

As in Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the A Train the laughs engendered have more broad-based thematic underpinnings about love, faith, guilt, and the traumas engendered by ghetto life. Thus Rooftop's confession, for all its one-liners, ends up revealing the small ego inside the tall frame ("Goddammit Father, I'm afraid a everything! Is that what you wanna hear? Afraid I'm never gonna be the person I thought I'd be, back when I thought I had all the time in the world to get there. . ."). Father Lux's seemingly unshakable faith also wobbles, per this little outburst: "I'm not a good priest. . . I haven't left the rectory next door since I was transferred here nine months ago. And I don't want to. Black people scare me. I don't particularly like them. Or you, really. Most of the time, I don't believe in God ant all, and when I do -- I'm furious at him."

The Union Square's stage is much larger than that of the LAByrinth's much smaller home, and set designer Narelle Sissons has taken advantage of the deeper and wider playing area to create an aptly nondescript funeral parlor. Lighting designer James Vermeulen, sound expert Eric DeArmon and costumer Mimi O'Donnell add to the excellent production values.

Our Lady of 121st Street ends with few loose ends that are tied up. Actually, there is no real end but an enough already cessation of confrontations that seems more like a comma than a period. Maybe in his next play Mr. Guirgis will bring a bit more structure to his terrific naturalistic dialogue which also prompts a concluding caveat for the prim and proper: While there's no nudity here, the language that strips away one facade after another is raw and real. and the F-word is everywhere on 121st Street, even in the church confessional.

LINKS Jesus Hopped the A Train also written by Stephen Adly Guirgis and directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman

Our Lady of 121st Street
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman
Cast: Elizabeth Canavan, Liza Colon-Zayas, Melissa Feldman, Mark Hammer, Scott Hudson, Ron Cephas Jones, Russelll G. Jones, Richard Petrocelli, Portia, Al Roffe, Felix Solis, David Zayas
Set Design: Narelle Sissons
Costume Design: Mimi O'Donnell
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen
Sound Design: Eric DeArmon
Running time: 2 hours, including one intermission
LAByrinth Theater Company at Union Square, 100 E. 17th St. (Park Av S./Irving Place), 212/505-0700 or 212/307-4100
From 2/18/03; opening 3/06/03.
Tues-Sat. @8pm; Sundays ! 7pm, Sat & Sun @ 3pm
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on March 2nd press performance
Closing 6/29/03--and closing given a one-month reprieve to 7/27/03
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