Theater Review: A Well-Scrubbed Our Lady of 121st Street

Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Hill Harper, and Dierdre Friel in Our Lady of 121st Street. Photo: Monique Carboni

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street is a play full of combustible energy that would benefit from compression and claustrophobia, but in the current revival at Signature Theatre, it’s spread out all over the wide Irene Diamond stage. The production is a curious creature: It’s powered by a number of individually gutsy performances, yet, taken as a whole, its punch doesn’t quite hit the gut. It rails and rants and gets characteristically raw — Guirgis is a playwright of the every-other-word-is-fuckin’ school — but in the Diamond, under the actor-friendly direction of Phylicia Rashad, its energy can feel diffuse and its trappings noticeably un-gritty. It doesn’t need an intermission, but it’s got one. All in all, it often feels weirdly comfortable, like a downtown street cat that’s moved uptown and indoors, where its claws get regularly clipped and there are always Friskies in the bowl.

It’s strange to think back to what Our Lady must have been in its 2002 premiere at the Labyrinth Theater Company. Philip Seymour Hoffman directed that production in a fourth-floor space on 21st Street that doesn’t exist anymore. Coming right off the Giuliani years, the angry comedy inspired the Times to use the words “scorching,” “smoldering,” “blistering,” and “explosive” in the first two paragraphs, as if Bruce Weber was reviewing Mount Vesuvius. It’s not that the script quite feels dated now — after all, a play that begins with a man in no pants shouting “What kinda fuckin’ world is this?!” should fit right in in 2018. (Though, when that same man, in the wake of the crime that kicks the story off, rants, “Ya know, if Rudy were still in office, this woulda never happened!”, the big ensuing laugh felt sour to me.) Rather, it’s that Rashad and her scenic designer are leaning into the play’s episodic structure, hoping to get by on strong scene work chopped up by conventional transitions, instead of an overarching sense of what’s smoldering in the center of it all, tying Guirgis’s snappy, ranty, end-on-a-punchline-and-a-jump-cut scenes together.

Our Lady is a character-driven play, built on a premise rather than a complicated plot. A beloved nun who taught at a neighborhood Catholic school in Harlem has died. Worse, her body’s been stolen from the Ortiz Funeral Home, where a motley band of her former students — none of whom has had it easy in life — keep showing up to mourn her, bringing with them personal demons, grudges, betrayals, and old but barely scabbed-over wounds. One of those students — the haunted, drink-numbed Balthazar (a morose Joey Auzenne) — is even the detective assigned to the case, but Guirgis isn’t writing a mystery. There’s one throwaway red herring about what might have become of Rose’s body that he drops into a later scene between the long-suffering building super, Edwin (the hulking, sympathetic Erick Betancourt), and his brother, Pinky (a cheery, affection-seeking brain-injury survivor played by Maki Borden), but it’s an unnecessary flourish. The nun’s posthumous fate isn’t some shocking revelation we’re breathlessly awaiting — it, like her cause of death (complications from alcoholism in the wake of an abusive upbringing), is simply another sad, horrible, unjust thing in a world that often feels like an endless parade of sadness, horror, and injustice.

If Guirgis is, as that same 2002 Times review asserted, “the poet laureate of the angry,” then that’s what he’s angry about. Like the pantsless, fulminating Victor, played by a very hepped-up John Procaccino, he wants to know what kind of fuckin’ world this is. “There are limits!” Victor shouts at Balthazar, “Maybe you grew up in a godless jungle, but I remember when the world was not this! And this? This is not the world!”

We might wince at some of Victor’s terminology, and we’d probably more than wince at his politics if we got the details on that front, but part of the lasting oomph of Guirgis’s writing is that he puts into the mouth of a man that many of us might avoid on the train a desolate, desperate sentiment that feels all too shared and present. Guirgis has no mercy for his characters but a great deal of sympathy. From a cheating radio DJ to a faith-shaken priest, a closeted lawyer to a wrathful junkie — these souls are lost, lonely, and lashing out in their constant uncertainty. They live in a city that breaks people, in a country that’s broken. What are they to do but rage?

And, in moments, they rage powerfully. Betancourt becomes a bear, roaring with enraged love and emotional recklessness in a speech to Pinky, who’s come home late and frightened Edwin with his absence. And especially piercing are Paola Lázaro’s seething, pugnacious addict, Norca, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine as Inez, a dry, no-nonsense woman in a tight red dress who’s got a “bombed-out graveyard for a mothahfuckin’ heart” underneath her form-fitting armor. Years ago, Norca slept with Inez’s then-husband, Walter — a.k.a. Rooftop the DJ (Hill Harper, in a slick, jumpy, secretly self-loathing performance) — and though Inez has since remarried, she’s hauled that 15-year-old hurt into her new relationship. In one of the play’s strongest scenes, she hits Rooftop with all she’s got — “You killed my heart, Walter! Killed it!” — only to have him break her open with unexpected, unsentimental honesty: “I lost you — dass my cross,” Rooftop says, finally making the confession that he’s been skirting around all day with the priest, Father Lux (a gruff, sad John Doman). “But if you wanna walk around all these years later still tryin’ ta play dead, dass your waste, not mine. Dass on you.”

An award-winning actor herself (not least as, yes, Clair Huxtable), Rashad seems most at home working with Our Lady’s cast in these individual moments of outsized emotion, connection, and indignation. Within the scenes themselves, something is often cooking (though not always: The treatment of Gail, the closeted lawyer’s boyfriend and, of course, a community-theater actor from Wisconsin, feels a little thin and comic relief-y, both in terms of writing and directing), but the arrangement of scenes in space feels static and tableau-ish, and the transitions — conventional music-plays-while-the-lights-go-dark affairs — fail to add meaning or movement. Walt Spangler’s set is a bit like a series of dioramas. A confessional booth, a bar, the funeral parlor’s waiting room — all are spread out across the stage, each one taking up its own space. Sister Rose’s flower-strewn coffin looms in the middle throughout, which makes sense, but I longed for the tensions of the characters to be contained and brought to boil in more of a pressure cooker. Scenes in the bar, for instance, span the entire stage, with the physical bar itself on one side and anyone sitting at it shouting across the empty central expanse to those seated at a table on the other side.

When was the last time a bar in New York felt that roomy? This city traps you in tiny rooms, in sweaty underground metal boxes and on cramped sidewalks: Other bodies are everywhere, hurried and hard and full of their own woes. Navigating it is a fight, living in it a daily battle of wills. But the characters of this Our Lady of 121st Street — all scrappy, surly fighters — have too much breathing room. Some of their anger, which should bounce off the walls and smack us in the face, floats off into the air, or gets absorbed in the carpet that covers the stage. The result is that the vigor and power of this Our Lady belong to its actors, while the play itself feels a little defanged, awaiting a rendition that more fluently unites its sparks of roiling, pent-up rage into a full blaze.

Our Lady of 121st Street is at the Signature Theatre through June 17.

A Well-Scrubbed Our Lady of 121st Street