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Our Lady of 121st Street

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 20, 2018

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Hill Harper, and Deirdre Friel
Photo by Monique Carboni

How toothsome it is that the funniest line in the snappy revival at the Pershing Square Signature Center of Stephen Adly Guirgis's scary-comic Our Lady of 121st Street, a play that lets fly with a constant bombardment of lunatic interactions, turns out to be the seemingly innocuous, "I'm sorry. I'm from Connecticut."

That line is delivered with perfect deer-in-the-headlights expression by Deirdre Friel as Sonia, the outsider among the motley assortment of characters gathered in and around the Ortiz Funeral Home in Harlem, where the action takes place. We laugh because we recognize Sonia as the brave onstage stand-in for those of us who are safely ensconced in the audience as the wildly eccentric characters arrive to pay their respects to the late Sister Rose, the "Our Lady" of the title.

The much loved and feared nun was their long-ago teacher whom they remember with fondness for the guidance she gave them, as well as with a strong dose of resentment from those who ever got on her wrong side. ("She beat my ass with a shillelagh," one of them recalls, while another refers to her as "that penguin bitch."). Sonia is there to lend support to her friend Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba), Sister Rose's niece, but otherwise she does not know a soul, including the dangerously unpredictable Norca (Paola Lázaro) who, at one point, physically attacks Sonia because she reminds her of someone else.

Don't go looking for much of a plot. Our Lady of 121st Street is a character-driven play, with the characters, many of whom have not been back to the neighborhood in years, bringing an arsenal of memories, grudges, secrets, and confessions. There is so much they have to reveal about themselves that the entire first act is made up of short scenes that serve as introductions. Every encounter seems like the ultimate non sequitur, most of them hugely funny though seemingly unrelated to the others, until the jigsaw puzzle starts to assemble itself piece by piece in Act II.

Fortunately, the playwright, the excellent cast, and director Phylicia Rashad deliver the goods by bringing these quirky individuals to life as they make us laugh out loud even when we are not certain that laughter is the appropriate response. Why is it that Victor (John Procaccino) is walking around the funeral home without his pants? Who is this person who, when he learned of the tragic death of his child, refused to leave home to identify the body until the Knicks game was over? What is the source of the bitterness between Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, a standout) and Rooftop (Hill Harper), who runs into her after a very lengthy session in the church's confessional where he talks the ear off the impatient Father Lux (John Doman)? And, oh, by the way, what ever happened to Sister Rose's body, which seems to have disappeared from her coffin just as everyone is preparing for her wake?

The permeating dark humor of Our Lady of 121st Street masks a great deal of pain, and Stephen Adly Guirgis uses it smartly to turn over a lot of rocks. What comes crawling out isn't always pleasant, yet the playwright's finely tuned ear for dialog shapes even the most unsavory moments into a theatrical feast. Just be glad that it's Sonia who gets to bear witness on our behalf, so we can safely laugh and squirm in our seats.

Our Lady of 121st Street
Through June 10
Irene Diamond Stage at The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street
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