'Our Lady of 121st Street': Theater Review

Monique Carboni
From left: Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Hill Harper and Deirdre Friel in 'Our Lady of 121st Street'
Superb performers do full justice to blisteringly funny material.
6/17/2018

Phylicia Rashad directs this revival of the 2002 play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 'Between Riverside and Crazy' and 'The Motherf—ker With the Hat.'

Acting students would be well advised to head immediately to the off-Broadway revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis' Our Lady of 121st Street. This 2002 work being presented by Signature Theatre ostensibly concerns the disappearance of a recently deceased nun's corpse. But the flimsy plotline is less important than its procession of darkly hilarious scenes providing a ready-made series of indelible audition pieces for male and female performers of varying ethnicities. This superb production, staged to perfection by Phylicia Rashad, provides a master class in how it's done. 

From the juicy roles he's written here, it's easy to guess that Guirgis, who won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for his most recent work, Between Riverside and Crazy, is an actor himself. His talent for rich characterization and pungent dialogue becomes immediately apparent from the opening scene, in which the pantless Victor (John Procaccino) is profanely lamenting the sorry state of the world to Balthazar (Joey Auzenne), an alcoholic New York City detective.

Balthazar has come to a Harlem funeral home to investigate the mysterious disappearance from her coffin of beloved if feared neighborhood fixture Sister Rose; the same culprit apparently made off with Victor's pants while he slept. Needless to say, the nun's funeral is put on hold until her body can be recovered, providing plenty of opportunities for emotional interactions among the former students gathered to mourn her.

Those include successful Los Angeles deejay Rooftop (Hill Harper); his bitter, abused ex-wife Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine); closeted attorney Flip (Jimonn Cole); Flip's actor lover Gail (Kevin Isola), whose gayness, much to his consternation, is obvious to everyone; Sister Rose's asthmatic niece Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba); the hot-headed Norca (Paola Lazaro), who's hostile to everyone she comes across; Sonia (Dierdre Friel), who hovers on the sidelines; and world-weary priest Father Lux (John Doman). 

Perhaps the two most moving characters are Pinky (Maki Borden), a brain-damaged young man who goes out to buy Yodels and returns 16 hours later; and his protective older brother Edwin (Erick Betancourt), who still feels guilty about having accidentally dropped a brick on Pinky's head when he was a child.

To say that not much really happens in the course of the play is an understatement, and anyone hoping for the central mystery to be revealed will be disappointed. That unfortunate situation proves merely a springboard for the characters to unveil their hopes, fears and disappointments in a series of confrontations that are frequently as moving as they are riotously funny. Hewing to the example set by such obvious playwrighting influences as David Mamet, Guirgis infuses his dialogue with an unending barrage of F-bombs that becomes nearly poetic in its intensity.

Not all the material in the procession of short blackout scenes is perfect, and Guirgis does occasionally resort to cheap gags. Nonetheless, the best of them are memorable indeed, such as Rooftop's awkward attempt at a confession, his first in at least 15 years, to the priest who has little patience for his task. The most powerful moment occurs when Edwin loudly berates his younger brother for having been gone so long, with his complex mixture of anger, relief and love revealed all at once.

The play hasn't aged in the slightest, although at least one moment — when Victor points out, "Ya know, if Rudy were still in office, this woulda never happened … I'm sure of it, he wouldn'ta took this lyin' down for two seconds" — not surprisingly gets a far different response now than it did in the original production.

Rashad, who in recent years has become a director to reckon with, delivers an assured staging that fully allows the actors to flower in their roles while resisting the temptation of going over the top. Despite the frequently flashy characterizations, all the performances feel fully lived in, although it's hard not to single out Hill, Bernstine and Betancourt for their sterling contributions.

While it might benefit from being presented in one of the theaterplex's smaller spaces, this production by Signature, which last year delivered a similarly terrific revival of Guirgis' Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, makes a strong case for the playwright as one of our most essential theatrical voices.

Venue: Pershing Square Signature Center, New York
Cast: Joey Auzenne, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Erick Betancourt, Maki Borden, Jimonn Cole, John Doman, Dierdre Friel, Hill Harper, Kevin Isola, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Paola Lazaro, John Procaccino
Playwright: Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director: Phylicia Rashad
Set designer: Walt Spangler
Costume designer: Alexis Forte
Lighting designer: Keith Parham
Sound designer: Robert Kaplowitz
Presented by Signature Theatre