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He Says: Our Lady of 121st Street Brings All These Characters Together For One Wild Wake

He Says: Our Lady of 121st Street Brings All These Characters Together For One Wild Wake
Everyone of these talented actors in Our Lady of 121st Street should thank their lucky stars and director Phylicia Rashad (Public’s A Midsummers Night..) for being cast in this superbly directed revival of Stephen Adly Guigis’ revival.  This celebrated play originally was performed Off-Broadway in 2003 at Center Stage/NY by the LAByrinth Theater, transferring to the Union Square Theatre and directed by great Philip Seymour Hoffman. The play received a Lucille Lortel, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle Best Play nomination that year, and now is being wonderfully revived by Signature Theatre. The play itself is more a collection of wildly funny and hypnotic scenes, a true gift to the actors involved, but if you are looking for and expecting a full arc to the story and a resolution at the end, this is the wrong place to be seeking such.  But if some fine character acting is your thing, in strongly written conversationals, rather than confessionals, make your way to the Pershing Square Signature Center.
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Erick Betancourt & Maki Borden. Photo by Monique Carboni.
The playwright behind the magnificent creations, Between Riverside and Crazy (ATC 2014, STC 2015) and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train (LAByrinth 2000, Signature 2017) has crafted a strong scenario to lead this crew to the watering hole, so to speak. The beloved Sister Rose has died, and her funeral has drawn back to the neighborhood a group of her former students returning to pay respects and reconnect to past entanglements. But there is a slight hitch in the program, it seems that someone has come along and stolen her dead body right out of the casket, along with a gentleman’s pants who for some reason was sleeping near by. Don’t ask me why this happened on the night before the service at the Funeral Home, because that, I guess, is not the point of this smart profanity-laden play. It’s just the device required to bring this lot back together, and to see what still brews.
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Quincy Tyler Bernstine & Paola Lázaro. Photo by Monique Carboni.
The performances are all pretty solid, without a questionable portrayal in the group.  Some resonate deeply, while others leave you scratching your head a bit wondering “Why?” Joey Auzenne ( American Airlines Theatre’s Broadway Backwards) is the alcoholic cop investigating the sister’s disappearance, but who also happens to know pretty much everyone who wanders into the room.  Except for the foul-mouthed pant-less man played by John Procaccino (Incident at Vichy), who seems to care deeply about Sister Rose, but as an audience member, we never really discover the connection. Or why someone would steal his pants. The inquiring questions start to stack up almost immediately. There is a touching pair of brothers that wander in. Erick Betancourt, who was so wonderful in last fall’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, breathes exacting life into another stellar creation as older brother and caregiver, Edwin, to the more simply minded Pinky, portrayed proudly and emotionally by Maki Borden (St. Ann’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music). Striking up a combative and engaging conversation with Sister Rose’s asthmatic niece and fireball Marcia, powerfully played by Stephanie Kurtzuba (Broadway’s Billy Elliot), the depth and connection that he has to his brother is touching, even with the layer of cling wrap dipped in guilt and frustration stretched tightly over the surface.
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Hill Harper & John Doman. Photo by Monique Carboni.
Also jetting in for the service, the former neighbor and now successful Los Angeles deejay, Rooftop, played with a motor-mouthed level of nonsense and sincerity by Hill Harper (Public’s Toast). He surprises even himself when he takes a lengthy sidestep into a confessional with the world-weary priest, played with a shockingly honest tinge of frustration, anger, compassion , and fear by John Doman (2ST’s The Other Thing). It’s a strangely captivating and irritating double scene that pushes the patience button a bit too forcibly before he carries onward to the bar to hang out with his buddies, Detective Balthazar (Auzenne) and the closeted gay lawyer, Flip, shyly played with an inconsistent edge by Jimonn Cole (Pearl’s Public Enemy). Flip disappears somewhat in that scene, but shifts dramatically from cold to hot in the before and after with his questionably talented actor and lover, Gail, played with an insecure bravado by Kevin Isola (Broadway’s Brooklyn Boy). There is relationship is a bit hard to make out, flailing around disconnection and affection but love and desire do seem far removed. Why has Gail even come along and stay is another question that begs asking, but half way through, one stops (or at least attempt to stop) asking questions of this nature, as the one thing that is clear in Our Lady of 121st Street, the answers to the “Why” questions will not come.
My favorite scenes almost always revolve around the magnificent Quincy Tyler Bernstine (Vineyard’s The Amateurs), the former abused wife of Rooftop. Her Inez is deliciously on point and exacting while also easily made as lopsided as a bird on the proverbial Rooftop.  The intricate direct way she engages with the hot-headed and hostile druggy Norca, played to volatile perfection by Paola Lázaro (Cherry Lane’s To the Bone) is solidly sly and dismissive, especially when she comes to the defense of the biggest question-mark in the story, Sonia lovingly played by Dierdre Friel (2ST’s Dogfight). Why oh why is she even in that bar or that waiting room? Get used to not knowing, although I’m not as good in that role as I’d like to think I am.
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Joey Auzenne, Jimonn Cole, Hill Harper & John Doman. Photo by Monique Carboni.
Laid out on a wide stage with various degrees of theatrical success by set designer Walt Spangler (Broadway’s Escape to Margaritaville), with overly broad lighting by Keith Parham (2ST’s Man from Nebraska), exacting sound design by Robert Kaplowitz (Broadway’s Fela!) and strong costumes by Alexis Forte (Theatre Row’s Spirits of Exit Eleven), these characters have all come to pay their respects. The dance between Rooftop and Inez is well worth the wait, but for the rest that sit around waiting in hopes that the body is returned so the service can actually take place, the payoff is far less obvious. Within these hours of being on hold, old neighbors rehash old wounds, struggling to connect and embrace one another in this time of need or make amends with past pain and discomfort. It’s a brash and edgy story that unwinds thoughtfully and with an erratic fire in its belly, thanks to Rashad’s sharp eye for truth.  It takes its time, displaying one after the other of vivid and comic portrayals of people on the edge of something. But the irreverence hinders the engagement, leaving us wondering and asking far too many questions.  Why has someone done this thing, stolen a body and a pair of pants? And why are so many of these souls here? I include myself in that question.  It’s a solid compilation of audition-worthy scenes for actors to play with and sink their teeth into, and they do, happily and successfully, but to what overall effect? That question for Our Lady of 121st Street is just as hard to answer as all the previous ones.
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Quincy Tyler Brunstine, Hill Harper, & Deirdre Friel in Our Lady of 121st Street by Stephen Adly Guirgis, directed by Phylicia Rashad. Signature Theatre. Photo by Monique Carboni.

For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

Off Broadway
@#frontmezzjunkies

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my last...so far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to frontmezzjunkies.com

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