BWW Review: Phylicia Rashad Directs Crackling Revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis' OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET
There's an empty casket on display and a pants-less mourner screaming. "What kinda fuckin' world is this?!" when the lights suddenly go up on Stephen Adly Guirgis' wild New York escapade, Our Lady of 121st Street.
When this scene first jolted Off-Broadway audiences fifteen years ago, the now Pulitzer winning playwright (2015 for BETWEEN RIVERSIDE AND CRAZY), was an emerging voice following up on the success of his earlier JESUS HOPPED THE 'A' TRAIN.
Now, perhaps best known for his sole Broadway entry, THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT, the Upper West Side native is enjoying a residency with Signature Theatre Company, which began with a sensational new production of JESUS...
Set in Harlem's Ortiz Funeral Home, this sampler of Gothamites in motion hits the ground running in director Phylicia Rashad's crackling production when it's revealed that the corpse of the community's beloved Sister Rose was somehow snatched overnight. Also snatched were the pants of fowl-mouthed Vic (hilariously antic John Procaccino), who's explaining to a detective named Balthazar (cool-headed and contemplative Joey Auzenne) why he was staying at the funeral home overnight.
Raised by an abusive father, Sister Rose became a strong influence in the community, setting up needle exchanges and programs to help treat alcoholics and to keep kids away from the lure of violent gangs, so her passing has brought in many of the people who benefited from her devotion and generosity, wanting to pay their respects. The set-up allows for a series of touching and funny interactions between everyday souls getting through their own personal struggles.
First we meet Balthazar's old buddy Rooftop (slick and energized Hill Harper), who moved to L.A. and became a morning drive-time radio star. Upon arriving he unloads thirty years' worth of confessions to wheelchair-user Father Lux (sadly business-like John Doman), who eventually confesses of his own dwindling faith and fear of the neighborhood people surrounding him.
Poured into a sexy red dress, Quincy Tyler Bernstine does a terrific job as Rooftop's bluntly outspoken ex, Inez, whose tough bearing guards the "bombed-out graveyard" she call her heart. Rooftop cheated on her with drug-addicted and antagonistic Norca (Paola Lázaro) and though she's remarried, she still finds herself incapable of love.
"Do not act like a faggot!," nervous lawyer Flip (Jimonn Cole) demands of his actor boyfriend Gail (Kevin Isola). Now living in Wisconsin, Flip doesn't want to deal with his hometown friends finding out he's gay. In a very uncomfortable scene, he cruelly demeans his partner's lack of talent, but that gives the audience a reason to enjoy the flamboyant snarkiness that Gail defiantly puts on display.
The play is grounded by its most moving relationship, that of building super Edwin (Erick Betancourt) and his mentally challenged brother, Pinky (Maki Borden). A childhood accident caused by Edwin damaged Pinky's brain, leaving him in a child-like state of naivete and unable to care for himself. Through guilt, love and responsibility, Edwin cares for his brother continually, desperate to instill in him an awareness of the dangers of the city streets. The hulking Betancourt and the tender Borden beautifully play out their scenes, which includes Edwin giving comfort to Sister Rose's fish out of water Connecticut niece, Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba).
Skillfully gliding from sharp, scatologically-expressed humor to realistic pathos, OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET is a terrific collection of genuine New York stories.