Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Our Lady of 121st Street"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


"OUR LADY OF 121st STREET"

by Stephen Adly Guirgis
directed by Paul Melone

Victor … Robert D. Murphy
Balthazar …Ricardo Engermann
Rooftop … Vincent E. Siders
Father Lux … Ray McDavitt
Flip … Jim Spencer
Gail … Rodney Raftery
Inez … Jacqui Parker
Norca … Elaine Theodore
Edwin … Luis Negrón
Pinky … Paulo Branco
Marcia … Jennifer Young
Sonia … Stacy Fischer

Is Stephen Adly Guirgis the new Mamet? His streetwise comedy OUR LADY OF 121st STREET is an evening of Mouth, New York style, with all the Mamet-like bitching, bullshitting and accents in place: The late Sister Rose, a beloved neighborhood icon, is to be buried but her body has been stolen from its coffin; where has it gone and who could have done it? Not all of the mystery is solved by evening’s end --- Sister Rose is the show's McGuffin --- Mr. Guirgis focuses instead on the woman's family, friends and former students (black and white) reacting to the vandalism and reflecting on how she touched their lives over the years, ironically contrasted with how their lives are today. Among the surprised mourners are the smooth-talking Rooftop who has not been to confession for fifteen years and wants to catch up in one afternoon; Inez, his ex-wife, who has not forgiven him for having an affair with her foul-mouthed friend Norca; the world-weary Edwin, saddled for life with Pinky, his mentally challenged brother; Marcia, the missing nun’s niece who takes a shine to Edwin, and Flip, openly gay elsewhere but back in the closet on his home turf; overseeing the case is Balthazar, who knows first-hand how each person reacts differently to grief. Much of this LADY is hamfisted fun: Mr. Guirgis wears softer armor than Mr. Mamet but has a great ear for Mouth, but, ah, the distancing of Art: what proves to be so entertaining onstage at the BCA might be unsettling when overheard, say, in a New York restaurant or in a train stuck in a tunnel under the East River --- or, for native New Yorkers, maybe not (when I lived in Brooklyn, I saw tenement dwellers sitting on their stoops, enjoying rhubarbs taking place in the street).

Under Paul Melone’s direction, the SpeakEasy production is a string of blackout sketches that thickens into a comedy-drama; everything dovetails, eventually, but it’s a pity that Mr. Melone didn’t shade and texture from the get-go --- as entertained as I was, I wondered where this was all leading to and felt a bit cheated at the “Huh?” ending (Mr. Guirgis might argue, that’s Life in all its mystery). On the other hand, Mr. Melone has put together a most entertaining ensemble, especially Vincent E. Siders as Rooftop, sly and innocent, street-smart yet wisdom-shy (how times have changed, even for playwrights: thirty years ago, Rooftop would surely have been a pimp or a drug lord; here, he is a West Coast radio personality) --- his mock-eulogy to the memory of his brother is a hilarious highlight. I first saw Mr. Siders last December in MONTICEL’ where he played ex-slave James Hemings with the same lazy incisiveness. Is he a one-note actor? If so, he’s an engaging one --- most bad boys are. There is a radiant stillness at the core of Jacqui Parker’s characterizations; even her fallen women are more maternal than sensual. Her heart-bruised Inez is more of the same and now ‘tis time for Ms. Parker, Riccardo Engermann and Stacy Fischer to relax some muscles and stretch some new ones: Mr. Engermann continues to play everything as a smooth, cool dude and Ms. Fischer, though still a journeywoman, phones in yet another loony bird. Though Mr. Siders steals the show, one should not overlook Luis Negrón and Jennifer Young as two mismatched souls thrown together by bodysnatching and an asthma attack; his crying jag followed by their fleeting love scene are genuinely touching because they are written and performed simply and directly with their defenses down and their hearts on the table.

On the night I attended, the audience was racially mixed and everyone laughed --- when it comes to Mouth, all the world’s a stage so, in the style of Mr. Guirgis’ tough-and-tender characters, I say get yo’ sorry ass down to the BCA box office.

"Our Lady of 121st Street" (5-27 March)
SPEAKEASY STAGE COMPANY
Boston Center for the Arts, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 426-ARTS

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