The current staging of Our Lady at The Pershing Square Signature Center, directed by Phylicia Rashad, magically now comes across as an addled, profane sitcom. It’s entertaining and at times moving, but the real magic is that the very same words can be tended by a solid director—this one obviously experienced in sitcoms—and refresh a theatrical experience so completely. Rashad has shown that scathing can be scathingly funny. This time I left laughing.
Our Lady of 121st Street revolves around the wake of Sister Rose at the Ortiz Funeral Home (a brilliantly complex, multi-unit theatrical set designed by Walt Spangler). Her coffin is center stage but, her body has been stolen, conferring many emotions—from anger to pleasure—on the large cast of characters.
The play opens with a vulgar salvo from one of the funeral attendees, Victor, a middle-aged Italian-American, a student of Sister Rose (an absolutely vivid John Procaccino) who sounds off to Balthazar, a young Latino New York Detective (Joey Auzenne who is casually real). It seems that Victor (“not Vic!”) spent the night at the funeral home and wound up losing his pants and shoes and the lady to whom he came to pay his respects. His opening salvo sets the irreverent mood.
Scenes switch quickly. Rooftop, a cool Black New Yorker who has made good in L.A. (Hill Harper, smooth and deep) has returned for the wake, but spends what seems like hours confessing his sins to elderly Father Lux (a world-weary, John Doman) whose patience is sorely tested.
The parade of characters continues: Rooftop’s ex-wife, the vivid Inez (an energetic, hilarious Quincy Tyler Bernstine) roars in, dressed in a tight red dress (fine costumes by Alexis Forte), to create havoc with other characters like hot-headed Norca (Paola Lázaro, wonderfully exuberant in her anger) who wants to hit poor Sonia, a quiet young lady from New Haven (Dierdre Friel) during an argument over the merits of different style pizzas.
Sister Rose’s meek niece, Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba, superficially calm, but internally rattled) also shows up.
Two brothers also make their way through the play. Edwin (Erick Betancourt, surly, but sympathetic) is the dedicated helper to his brother Pinky (Maki Borden, very moving as the scattered, slightly weak-minded character). Their relationship forms a dramatic arc that runs through the play, leading to Edwin’s pathetic treatment of his mentally ill kin.
Completing the cast are Flip (Jimonn Cole, doing mean-spiritedness well) a pretentious, closeted Black man and his white lover, Gail (Kevin Isola, marvelously nerve-wracked) who also come to town for the wake.
The missing corpse—later discovered cut to pieces—draws all these diverse characters together as if she had been some lodestar who unofficially caused all their neuroses and social issues, few of which are dealt with when the play ends on an abrupt, breathless note just as all the characters gather together.
It’s Guirgis’ (Jesus Hoped the “A” Train, Between Riverside and Crazy) talent to make these different elements coalesce into a wonderfully rich crazy quilt of humanity on the lowdown.
Also adding to the mood is the lighting of Keith Parham and the sound design of Robert Kaplowitz.
Our Lady of 121st Street (through June 17, 2018)
The Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-244-7529 or visit http://www.signaturetheatre.org
Running time: two hours including one intermission