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Theatre Review (LA): Our Lady of 121st Street by Stephen Adly Guirgis at Theatre 68

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Ever since seeing In Arabia We’d All Be Kings and then appearing in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, I have been intrigued by the works of playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis. His play The Mother*cker With The Hat was his first Broadway venture and received several nominations as well as awards.

One of his first plays was Our Lady of 121st Street. Theatre 68 (the artistic director had only 68 cents in his pocket when he got the idea for this theatre company) is dedicated to assisting actors, writers, directors, and producers in the realization of their creative and professional identity. The company is known for edgy works and you can’t get more edgy that a Guirgis play.

The story is about a group of acquaintances who assemble to honor their old teacher, a nun by the name of Sister Rose. Sister Rose was a drunk, an Irish schoolteacher-nun in Harlem who fell in the gutter and died. But in the eyes of her students she was a selfless nun. In the play, her ex-students have gathered from all over to attend her funeral. The only trouble is, the body is missing. That fact provides a good reason for the characters to hang out for the length of the play until the body, or rather half a body, is found.

Guirgis specializes in characters on the margins of society. Yet no matter how despicable the character is (Judas Iscariot), he always finds some saving characteristic grace and touching human foibles. His plays are also very very funny, full of street talk but containing elements of poetry. It takes a strong cast to give this material its due. Director Joe Palese has assembled a talented cast and, despite their eccentric characters, kept them firmly grounded in reality.

It is hard to single out any one performance since all the cast is strong, but I particularly like Claudine Claudio as the foul-mouthed Norca. Daniel Hutchinson brings a droll sensibility into the mix as Father Lux. Moe Irvin is first-rate as the man with a bad past trying to get himself to confess to Father Lux; the scenes are a riot. Ray Cosico finds every bit of humor in the character of Pinky, a brain-damaged kid, and Timothy Alonzo is an off-the-wall flaming guy who wants to be an actor (which is plainly impossible given his over-the-top mannerisms).

Our Lady of 121st Street will play at Theatre 68 through June 10.

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