Stephen Adly Guirgis is angry — and that’s a good thing. With productions like the corrosive The Little Flower of East Orange and Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, he’s solidified his reputation for delivering emotion at its rawest. His characters constantly rant, scream, cry, and confront each other, and it’s a testament to the author’s skill that he’s able to develop them into fully fleshed-out human beings that an audience can relate to.
Set principally in a Harlem funeral home and nearby bar, Our Lady of 121st Street is ostensibly about a group of friends and former classmates reuniting for the funeral of their teacher Sister Rose, a nun with a fearsome reputation who nonetheless has touched their lives in a meaningful way. They want to pay their last respects, but there’s a problem: Her body’s been stolen.
The funeral is delayed as the search commences, so these old friends and acquaintances spend the long night drinking, reminiscing (and not all the memories are pleasant), reopening old wounds and creating new ones. There’s Balthazar, the New York detective who drinks to mask his private pain; Rooftop, who’d fled the neighborhood to find success as a DJ in Los Angeles, leaving his bitter wife, Inez, behind; Edwin, who takes care of his brain-damaged brother, Pinky; Flip, a closeted attorney who’s brought along his boyfriend, Gail, but is afraid to reveal the true nature of their relationship; and Marcia, SIster Rose’s niece, who’s inherited her late aunt’s explosive temper.
Our Lady is presented as a series of episodic vignettes, a theatrical device that can be risky, but Guirgis skilfully crafts a compelling story with direction and purpose.
The first character we meet is Vic, wearing no pants and kneeling before the coffin. When Balthazar arrives to investigate the crime, Vic delivers the first rant of the piece, despairing over the theft of Sister Rose’s body as well as his pants. Rooftop goes to confession to expunge his sins, especially his adultery, but instead of the priest he’d known in his childhood, he gets Father Lux, an embittered and apathetic cleric who’d lost his legs and his faith – and who also hates African-Americans. Gradually all the characters are introduced and interact in various ways…and Our Lady‘s true theme is revealed.
Theatre 68’s cast is dynamite, with a number of standouts. Moe Irvin is wryly humorous as the seemingly carefree but guilt-ridden Rooftop, and Katy Jacoby delivers a powerhouse performance as Inez, his scorned ex-wife. Christian Monzon shines in one of the tougher roles as Edwin, whose years spent caring for Pinky have taken an emotional toll. Ray Cosico is also good as the well-meaning but simple Pinky, a character that could easily be a cliché.
Speaking of clichés, Timothy Alonzo does wonders with the role of Gail, an effeminate wannabe actor who is weary of hiding in the shadows with Flip. Daniel Hutchison provides a nice slow burn as the spiritually exhausted (and ironically named) Father Lux who has no patience for the fast-talking, pot-smoking Rooftop. And Ed Dyer does well by Vic, outraged by the disappearance of the body and even more so by the flotsam he’s forced to live alongside.
Guirgis has a splendid ear for the street, and the expletive-laced arguments between Inez and her part-time girlfriend, Norca (Claudine Claudia) are among the show’s comedic high points. Technically speaking, this production’s direction by Joe Palese is superb and the set design by Hutchison and Joe Dallo makes good use of the spare stage to indicate several locations, supported by Matt Richter’s atmospheric lighting.
When Our Lady comes to its conclusion, you realize that you’ve just witnessed an exorcism of sorts. Some of the characters come away transformed; others continue trudging down the same path they’ve followed for years.
But there are no particularly happy endings and no easy outs – just like life.
Our Lady of 121st Street, at Theatre 68, 5419 West Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, plays Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. through June 10. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 960-5068.
Photo: Moe Irvin and Daniel Hutchison (Matthew Richter)