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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.