Sunday, May 27, 2018

19 (2018-2019): Review: OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET (seen May 25, 2018)

"A Tisket a Casket; or, Whatever Happened to Sister Rose?"

No sooner do the lights come up on the Ortiz funeral home in Our Lady of 121st Street than we see Victor (the excellent John Procaccino), a gray-haired man in a suit jacket and boxer shorts (where his trousers should be), raging at the top of his lungs.

 As Balthazar (Joey Auzenne, beautifully rough-edged), a whiskey-nipping Latino detective in his mid-30s, stands listening, Victor pours forth a litany of curses on the abusive father of the late nun. With Sister Rose's empty casket sitting right behind them, Victor condemns the man for being “a fuckin piece of dirt, shanty-Irish-mick-fuck father!” Nor does he neglect to suggest that “Demons should shit in his mouth daily.” How, he wonders, could something like this have happened to the beloved Sister Rose? 
Joey Auzenne, John Procaccino. Photo: Monique Carboni.
And thus begins the hilariously potty-mouthed first act of Stephen Adly Giurgis’s black comedy of 2003, now in a superbly acted revival, directed by Phylicia Rashad, at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The casket is empty because someone, leaving no signs of forced entry, stole the corpse (and Victor’s trousers) from the Harlem funeral home where it was on view.

Victor and Balthazar, who has come in response to someone’s call, are former students of Sister Rose, as are all but two of the play’s other ten characters, most of them there for her wake.

By the end of an essentially plotless two hours we will learn only partially about what happened to Sister Rose’s body. However, while it ties Giurgis’s dramatic package in a playwriting bow, the revelation is secondary to the interactions among the work’s memorable rogues’ gallery of eccentrics. One might almost say that Our Lady of 121st Street is, rather than a conventional play, an episodic, dramatic concert in which the songs have been converted to acting arias, including solos, duets, and choral numbers.
Hill Harper, John Doman. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Sister Rose, we learn, was one tough cookie, but, while she might have left physical marks on her more troublesome students, she left a far more permanent mark on their hearts. A series of scenes in the church, funeral parlor, and a bar ensues, each with rippling, sinewy dialogue that commands attention and ignites raucous laughter, introducing us to a succession of pulsing livewires whose connections with others create fiery sparks. 

They include the flashy Walter “Rooftop” Desmond (Hill Harper, dynamic), a voluble, bling-wearing, L.A. radio personality. His inability to abandon soul-baring conversation for the confession he so desperately needs frustrates the legless, and seemingly faithless, Father Lux (John Doman, sensitively low-keyed).
Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Paola Lazaro. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Then there’s the gay, African-American lawyer, Flip (Jimmon Cole, convincingly cautious), who doesn’t want his white boyfriend, Gail (Kevin Isola, just right), a second-rate actor, to behave like a “faggot” and thus force Flip out of the closet before his old friends. 
Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Hill Harper, Dierdre Friel. Photo: Monique Carboni.
We also meet Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, almost unrecognizable in a breakout performance unlike anything I’ve ever seen her do), a sassily smart-mouthed African-American hotty in a tight red dress. Inez is furious with another old friend, the nastily defensive Latina Norca (Paola Lazaro, dangerously edgy), for having slept with Inez’s ex-husband, Rooftop; her interactions with him are similarly explosive. 

Nor can we forget the impeccably crafted and performed duologues of the kindhearted superintendent, Edwin (Erick Betancourt, perfect), and his mentally slow brother, Pinky (Maki Borden, a standout), for whose condition he’s responsible, a debt he pays off by providing personal care. So bound is he by Pinky, he can’t even allow himself to accept the interest in him of Rose's attractive niece, Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuber, impressively real). 

Erick Betancourt, Maki Borden. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Our Lady has loose ends, several vaguely drawn characters, like Victor and Marcia’s friend Sonia (Deirdre Friel), and an uncomfortable depiction of the two gay men. Despite the play’s structural problems, its characters and language are so electric that, even when the laughs subside in the more serious Act II, you remain invested in these damaged souls. 

Joey Auzenne, Jimmon Cole, Hill Harper, John Doman. Photo: Monique Carboni.
Walt Spangler’s set, showing multiple locations against a background of Harlem buildings, is too spread out on the wide stage, dissipating focus, and creating problems that Rashad’s directing doesn’t fully resolve. Keith Parham’s moody lighting and Alexis Forte’s costumes, however, do much to improve the quality of the visuals.

Our Lady of 121st Street is early Guirgis; his later plays, like Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, revived on this same stage this past October, show significant technical improvements. But, even with its flaws, Our Lady, of the nearly 2o plays I’ve reviewed since the 2018-2019 began, is (by a hair) the best.


Pershing Square Signature Center
480 W. 42nd St, NYC
Through June 17