By William Wolf

OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET (2018)  Send This Review to a Friend

Having reviewed the 2002 LAByrinth Theater production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s often hilarious play, “Our Lady of 121st Street,” I was curious to see what the new Signature Theatre revival was like. Fortunately, it preserves the author’s quirky look at quirky characters and is just as entertaining and relentlessly profane. The new cast delivers impressively, and Phylicia Rashad’s direction nails the play’s unusual qualities and the diverse people under inspection.

The set-up itself remains totally bizarre. The scenic design by Walt Spangler is divided, with the centerpiece the Oritz Funeral Home in Harlem, marked by a huge brightly lit vertical sign. At one corner is a bar, and at the other what is alternately a church confessional booth, and, when flipped around, a restaurant corner. Center stage also becomes an outdoor area when needed.

The premise itself is nutty, the corpse of Sister Rose, which should be residing in the large visible coffin, has been stolen. Joey Auzenne as tough-talking detective Balthazar is trying to discover who stole the corpse and what happened to it.

Sister Rose, we learn, was a an influential Harlem nun and teacher in the lives of various characters who have come to pay tribute to her in recognition of what she meant to them as students for her mix of tough discipline and inspiration. The theft is merely the device the author uses for the series of portraits and confrontations, with mordant humor raging throughout.

One of the most enjoyable sequences occurs in the confessional booth, with the verbose, very funny Rooftop (Hill Harper), now a radio host, trying to confess a lifetime of sin to Father Lux, played with exasperation by John Doman. Rooftop goes on endlessly without getting to the nitty-gritty of why he is there, fueled by a lifetime of not previously confessing. Father Lux reminds him that his is a confessional, not a conversational.

Subsequently, when we meet Father Lux in a wheelchair outside the confessional booth, we see that he has no legs. “Korea,” he explains matter-of-factly. The priest is also the conduit for some of the playwright’s philosophical ideas.

Among others whom we meet are Erik Betancourt as Edwin, who is filled with resentment at having to look after his mentally underdeveloped brother Pinky (Maki Borden). But the condition is really Edwin’s fault, as he casually explains that he “accidentally” threw a brick out the window and it landed on Pinky’s head.

There is Jimonn Cole playing Flip, a Wisconsin lawyer who tries to hide that he is gay, and his lover, Kevin Isola as aspiring actor Gail, whose homosexuality is embarrassingly obvious to Flip, who at one point berates him with inexcusable cruelty. There are Norca (Paola Lázaro), who has been on drugs and is an angry bundle of hostility; Dierdre Friel as the phlegmatic Sonia from Connecticut, whom Norca assaults; Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstein), Rooftop’s sex-flaunting ex-wife, who accuses Norca of having slept with her husband, and Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba), the late Sister Rose’s asthmatic niece. Let’s not forget Victor (John Procaccino), whom we see at the outset in his shorts, because those who stole the corpse also stole his pants.

The motley black and white characters in Guirgis’s play spew collective vocabulary not for those who wince at profanity—they’ll have to engage in lots of wincing in listening to these folks delivering the author’s salty and amusing dialogue. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-7529. Reviewed May 23, 2018.


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