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Our Lady of 121st Street

A rich crazy quilt of humanity on the lowdown from a 2003 play by Stephen Adly Guirgis and directed by Phylicia Rashad for a Signature Theater revival.

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Joey Auzenne and John Procaccino in a scene from Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Our Lady of 121st Street” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, but I remember the original 2003 LAByrinth Theater Company production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ colorful Our Lady of 121st Street, directed by the late  Philip Seymour Hoffman, as a dark tale of troubled characters, not without an edge of humor.  I didn’t come away laughing, but trembling partly in anger and partly in disgust.

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.

Quincy Tyler Bernstine and Paolo Lázaro in a scene from Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Our Lady of 121st Street” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

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.

Hill Harper and John Doman in a scene from Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Our Lady of 121st Street” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

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.

Erich Betancourt and Maki Borden in a scene from Stephen Adly Guirgis’ “Our Lady of 121st Street” (Photo credit: Monique Carboni)

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)

Signature Theater

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

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Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (269 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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