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Theatre in Review: Our Lady of 121st Street (Signature Theatre)

Joey Auzenne, John Procaccino. Photo: Monique Carboni

If scorchingly hilarious dialogue is your thing, you can do no better than Signature's revival of this early Stephen Adly Guirgis work, which is populated by as colorful a gang of loudmouths as you are likely to meet, most of them from the neighborhood of the title. For example, there's Gail, a sometime actor and "drama empress," in the words of Robert, his closeted lover. Watching Robert, aka Flip, returning from Wisconsin to his Harlem home turf, trying to pass himself off as straight, Gail, by way of warning, invokes his favorite Shelley Winters film, about Sunny Waldman, who "denied her Jewishness before a Nazi tribunal to avoid the death camps" and "became a morphine-addicted harlot who ended up wandering into the forests of Bavaria to be consumed by wolves and jackals." Just to underline the point, he adds, "Denial's like a pair of Prada silk pajamas, Robert -- the price is just too high!" You may not be surprised to hear that this line of argument proves less than persuasive, though it does succeed in driving the already tense Flip to the breaking point.

Then there's Inez, who is bitter and proud of it, at home on a bar stool where she issues devastating proclamations about this fallen world. She recalls her ex thusly: "Walter cherry-popped every Jordache bubble-butt from Ninety-sixth on up, served me right to be so damn naive...Comin' home with tar stains all on his sweatpants. Pigeon feathers. And ta think, I thought y'all called him 'Rooftop' 'cuz he was tall."

Speaking of Rooftop, the Catholic sacrament of Confession will never be the same after he gets in the box and lists his sexual transgressions to the nonplussed Father Lux, including 497 acts of adultery, about which, he adds, "and that's not including before I was married, and it's also not including those nights I can't remember due to substances, which we better just tack on another 25, 50, 'cuz I figure it's better to err on the side a caution, doncha think, Father?" Turning to the topic of "seed spillin'," he offers 17,000 as a rough estimate. Father Lux, trying to look on the bright side, says, "The important thing is that you came back." "Dass right I came back," Rooftop replies. "And it's not like y'all got the most alluring marketing campaign going on these days either, Father. You feelin' me?"

Then there's Victor, who has been found, without his pants, in the funeral parlor where the deceased, a Catholic nun, has been mysteriously spirited away. Victor is in a fine fury, even if he adds that the nun "donned the habit because she was terrified of intimacy, and all them programs was a way to atone for the sins of her f--kin' piece-of-dirt Shanty-Irish Mick-f--k father!" Balthazar, the cop questioning him, offers Victor a sip from his flask to "take the edge off." "I prefer to keep my edge on," mutters Victor. He could be speaking for everyone in Our Lady of 121st Street.

The nun in question, Sister Rose, was a beloved community figure, for her skills as a teacher and her willingness to minister to the most troubled souls; she was also a scandal, thanks to her alcoholism, which sometimes led to her being found passed out on the street. If the play opens with the sensational news of her body's abduction, be warned that the playwright has no intention of wrapping up this mystery, although he comes up with an associated, and even more grisly, act for the finale. Between these incidents, his interest is in the abundant human wreckage, as various mourners -- many of them refugees from the neighborhood -- hang out, letting it all hang out. If it doesn't seem sporting to introduce such an extravagant plot device with no intention of resolving it, the cast of characters, each one a profoundly damaged smart aleck, provides plenty of compensation. (In more recent plays, such as The Little Flower of East Orange and The Motherf---er with the Hat, his structural sense improved markedly.)

Phylicia Rashad's production is firmly on the author's savage, usually hilarious wavelength without obscuring the terrible pain behind each ruthless takedown. Standouts among the large cast include Quincy Tyler Bernstine, verbally locked and loaded as Inez; Hill Harper as Rooftop, now a star on LA radio, watching his life pass by in a marijuana haze; Jimonn Cole as the eternally uptight, self-hating Flip; Kevin Isola as Gail, clinging to Flip and the illusion that he is another Al Pacino; andJohn Doman as Father Lux, squirming with impatience over Rooftop's endless confessions, who returns to make a poignant confession of his own about his vocation. And Joey Auzenne a new face to me, makes a strong impression as Balthazar, who has to pick his way through this wild bunch; he makes a powerful thing of a speech about a man who, informed by a pair of cops of the death of his son, insisted on watching a Knicks game to its conclusion before going to identify the body. "He served them ham sandwiches with warm beer," he adds.

Walt Spangler has devised a set that easily provides a wide-angle view of the action, creating distinct playing areas while leaving most of the stage exposed; the one bit of extra set dressing is a slice of the funeral home's exterior. It's a strategy that gives the characters plenty of freedom to roam as they rant; it also allows Keith Parham, the lighting designer, to create plenty of sculptural sidelight looks. Alexis Forte's costumes are well attuned to each character. Robert Kaplowitz's sound design includes a smashing opening effect, in which a choir singing sacred music is overlaid with jazz and other contemporary music styles.

The musical opening is most appropriate, since Our Lady of 121st Street offers its own chorus of voices, most of them profane, but bubbling over with furious life. It's the kind of imperfect work that is better than many a dull drama that plays by the rules, and the opportunity catch it in this darkly sparkling production shouldn't be missed. --David Barbour

(1 June 2018)

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