“What kinda f—in’ world is this?”
It is the first line in the first scene of “Our Lady of 121st Street,” asked by a man in his underwear, ranting to a detective at the Ortiz Funeral Home in Harlem, where the funeral for Sister Rose is supposed to take place, except that somebody has stolen the dead nun’s body. The same thief has stolen the agitated man’s pants.
It’s also a good question for theatergoers to ask of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2002 play, revived as part of his Signature season. It is a production smartly cast and competently directed by Phylicia Rashad. The script exhibits some of Guirgis’s familiar street energy, full of harsh, foul-mouthed humor; it even touches on some of his usual themes (living with sorrow and regret; betrayal; spiritual redemption.) But “Our Lady of 121st Street” is less substantive and less satisfying than many of his other plays, especially the 2011 “The Motherfucker with a Hat,” for which he was nominated for a Tony, and the 2014 “Between Riverside and Crazy,” for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The ranting man in the underwear, Vic (John Procaccino), was a childhood friend of Sister Rose; the detective Balthazar (Joey Auzenne) is investigating the theft. But what promises in that first scene to be a farcical mystery quickly swerves in a different direction — or, more precisely, loses direction. Vic and Balthazar turn out to be just two of 12 interconnected characters crowded into the play, mostly in two-character or three-character scenes that amount to little more than darkly comic vignettes.
Edwin (Erick Betancourt) taking care of his brain-damaged brother Pinky (Maki Borden), isn’t all that bright himself. When we first see him, he’s composing a eulogy:
“Sister Rose Marie was a very special person. I, personally, had her for Homeroom for First Grade, and for Second Grade, and then for Second Grade again, and then for Second Grade one more time…”
The most developed thread involves Walter ‘Rooftop’ Desmond (portrayed by Hill Harper, a familiar face on television, currently the surgeon Dr. Marcus Andrews on “The Good Doctor.”) Rooftop, a former kid from the neighborhood, is now a radio d.j. in L.A. He has returned to Harlem, presumably for the funeral of Sister Rose, his former teacher. But we first see him in a confessional for the first time in 30 years. The priest he knew as a child has been dead for 15 years, replaced by Father Lux (John Doman, another familiar TV face, most prominently as Acting Commissioner William A Rawls in “The Wire.”) Father Lux has no patience for Rooftop’s nervous chattiness. “This is a Confessional, not a ‘Conversational,’ the Father says, which is funny only the first time Guirgis has him say it.
It turns out Rooftop is motivated to receive absolution because he expects to run into his ex-wife Inez, who has remained in the neighborhood, and whom he wronged in sundry ways.
Inez is portrayed by Quentin Tyler Bernstine, who is amazing in the role, especially for those of us who have seen her play very different previous parts, such as the recent Amateurs and Small Mouth Sounds. Her Inez wears a sexy red dress and assumes a take-no-shit manner
But watch her face, a mixture of anger and hurt and love, when Rooftop offers what’s not exactly an apology, but an admission that, yes, 15 years earlier when their marriage broke up, it was because he screwed up: “I lost you—that’s my cross. ‘Cuz you was my royal.”
The Rooftop-Inez interaction represents one of the few times that “Our Lady of 121st Street” achieves the kind of balance between humor and pathos that the playwright surely intended. Each of the characters (including the off-stage Sister Rose) has an underlying tale of sorrow, but these are largely undeveloped; told in throwaway lines. The comedy dominates. (I’m not sure if any director could bring the poignancy more to the fore; this one doesn’t.)
Some of the scenes, though, are not so much funny as just odd, or incomplete, such as several with a character named Sonia (Dierdre Friel), who’s a friend of Sister Rose’s niece Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba). Others get by on the force of the acting, such as one between Bernstine as Inez and Paola Lazaro (who is herself also a playwright) as Nasty Norca, whom Inez blames for breaking up her marriage. Lazaro makes a convincing, and riveting, psychopath.
The one serious misstep involves Robert (Jimonn Cole) and Gail (Kevin Isola.) Robert, a lawyer, and Gail, an actor, are a gay couple living in Wisconsin, but they have traveled to New York for the funeral; Sister Rose had been Robert’s teacher. While home, Robert insists that Gail call him by his neighborhood name, Flip, and that he not only keep their relationship a secret during the visit, but that he act less effeminate. But Robert goes further, calling Gail a “faggot” and attacking him as a lousy actor.
This seems unlikely language for a 37-year-old gay lawyer in the 21st century, but one can most charitably try to explain away these ugly words as Robert’s bout of self-loathing, triggered by his return to the rough-and-tumble neighborhood where he grew up.
That explanation, however, is undermined by a follow-up scene in the local bar, where Gail goes up to Marcia and Edwin, who are strangers to him, and out of the blue asks them whether he seems “very gay” to them. The back-and-forth, which lasts several minutes, is probably meant to be funny. Added to Robert’s homophobic attack on his lover, however, it just seemed a straight writer’s tone-deafness.
This is not an accusation one normally levels at Guirgis, who has a terrific ear for the idiom of street-wise New Yorkers, especially Latino New Yorkers, evident in the street poetry in “Our Lady of 121st Street” as it is in his better plays. The playwright’s ear can make you both laugh and think, such as the moment that Father Lux tracks down Rooftop at the bar next to the church, and asks him to join him in prayer.
“Goddamnit Father this is a bar…” Rooftop protests.
“God spends a lot more time here than he does next door,” Father Lux says.
“Yeah, well, that explains a lot!“
Our Lady of 121st Street
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Directed by Phylicia Rashad,
Scenic design by Walt Spangler, costume design by Alexis Forte, lighting design by Keith Parham, sound design by Robert Kaplowitz, hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan, dialect coach Susan Finch, production stage manager Charles M. Turner III i
Cast: Joey Auzenne, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Erick Betancourt, Maki Borden, Jimonn Cole, John Doman, Dierdre Friel, Hill Harper, Kevin Isola, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Paola Lázaro, John Procaccino
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including an intermission.
Our Lady of 121st Street is scheduled to run through June 10, 2018.
Update: The play has been extended through June 17, 2018.