Our Lady of 121st Street by Stephen Adly Guirgis is missing several elements that are usually vital to a play – like a plot and an ending. But the biggest thing it’s missing is… more. When the lights came down on the revival of Our Lady of 121st Street currently playing at the Signature Theatre, I didn’t want it to end.
Because I fell in love with the superbly drawn, flawed but fighting characters that come to pay their respects to Sister Rose – whose body, along with the pants of one of the mourners – has been stolen from the Ortiz Funeral Home. The depressed alcoholic Detective Balthazar (Joey Auzenne) who offers a raging, pant less Victor (John Procaccino), a nip to "take the edge off" to which Victor responds, "I prefer to keep my edge on, pal."
Then there’s Rooftop (Hill Harper), the one who made it out of the neighborhood and hit it big in LA with his own radio show. He hasn’t been back in a long time and he clearly has some regrets about the way he’s lived his life. So, he decides he’ll go to confession back in the old church. But he doesn’t find it easy and keeps talking around everything but the subject of his sins. Father Lux (John Doman), who lost his legs in Korea and is having a crisis of faith himself, asks Rooftop how long it’s been since he’s been to confession. Rooftop replies "Well...well, it's been... Know what I'm sayin'? It's been been. Definitely been been...Put it like this: my first confession? That was my last time checkin' in with y'all, so, yeah, been a while..."
Also returning to the old neighborhood is Robert, known in the ‘hood by his nickname Flip (Jimonn Cole). This comes as news to his boyfriend Gail (Kevin Isola) who has insisted on accompanying Flip on this condolence visit but has definitely not respected Flip’s wishes for him to keep a low profile. Flip & Gail live in Wisconsin where they are lawyers and partners in the same firm, and Gail acts in community theater. Of course, the minute they run into an old friend of Flip’s, Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), she’s on to him. Flip has just introduced Gail as his law partner, and before Flip can say his name Gail says "Goliath. Goliath Muscleton."
INEZ: I guess things must be pretty progressive out there in Wisconsin. Maybe I should move there.
GAIL: What do you mean?
INEZ: I mean, a black man and a gay man, partners in the same firm—
FLIP: I’m not gay, Inez.
INEZ: I’m not talkin’ ‘bout you, honey, I’m talkin’ ‘bout Goliath here. (To GAIL) Now you stay away from my man now, girl.
It turns out that Rooftop used to be married to Inez, but they divorced after she caught him with crazy-ass Nasty Norca (Paola Lazaro) on their kitchen table 15 years ago. She’s moved on and remarried but Rooftop hasn’t. When she runs into Flip and Gail, she’s on her way to meet Norca before the funeral. They haven’t seen each other in years, but that’s no reason not to have a friendly drink. Even if Norca is incapable of being friendly. When Norca starts harassing a bar patron over a case of mistaken identity Inez says to her: “Damn, girl, I’m about ta put a muzzle and a leash on you, you are venomous like some kinda no-ear pit bull. (To SONIA) She’s a little tipsy, tipsy and grieving.”
Then there’s Edwin (Erick Betancourt) and his brother Pinky (Maki Borden) who live together. As Edwin explains about his brother "He ain't retarded, he just suffered an accident when we was little. I accidentally threw a brick out the window which ended up on his head." Pinky seems oblivious to his shortcomings and is happy running errands for Edwin and getting hugs from him. Edwin is a bit stressed out, constantly worrying about Pinky and his wellbeing.
What Our Lady of 121st Street really resembles is an uptown version of Seinfeld. Not a lot really happens in terms of plot. Spoiler alert – neither Sister Rose’s body nor Victor’s pants get found. Mostly everyone sits around talking to each other. But the characters get under your skin, and their quiet and not-so-quiet struggles to stay afloat in a hostile world, and their ability to see the humor in the darkness, is like water in the desert. You thirst for more.
Hats off to a superb cast, insightful and powerful script by Stephen Adly Guirgis and deft direction by Phylicia Rashad. It’s not too late for a sequel!
(Photo by Monique Carboni)
What the popular press says...
"Almost by definition, drama is about people behaving badly. No surprise, then, that there are so many whiners and wastrels to be found on New York stages, from the meat-pie maniacs of Sweeney Todd to O’Neill’s Tyrones, abusing drugs and one another. But undoubtedly the most enjoyable screw-ups you can catch right now are those hanging around the Ortiz Funeral Parlor in Our Lady of 121st Street, which opened in a raucous, rough-edged revival directed by Phylicia Rashad at the Signature Theater on Sunday."
Jesse Green for New York Times
"Superb performers do full justice to blisteringly funny material."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
External links to full reviews from popular press...