What has happened to Sister Rose’s body? Her coffin is center stage in Signature Theatre’s uproariously fun and viscerally piercing production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ multi-award nominated 2002 play, Our Lady of 121st Street. Yes, the coffin is empty: someone has stolen Sister Rose.
After an equally adept mounting of Jesus Hopped The ‘A’ Train last autumn, this is the second play in Guirgis’ residency at Signature, which produces a series of plays from the body of work of one writer.
The unseen Sister Rose—all that is left is what looks like a bloody smear on some coffin lining at the Ortiz Funeral Home in Harlem—has inspired a moving devotion on the part of those former students who’ve come to mourn her; but, under Phylicia Rashad’s poised direction, their own frayed minds make this not exactly a quiet and reflective period of mourning.
If there is an absurdity about a coffin on stage—think of it as an object of farce as in Joe Orton’s Loot—everything that happens around Sister Rose’s is at once a laughing matter and also deadly serious.
Just as the disappearance of Sister Rose’s body is a mystery, so is the lives of the group we meet. We drop into their stories at the beginning of the show, and drop out of them again at the end. The flow of experience is a series of fragments, which elucidate the bigger stresses the characters labor under.
That Guirgis—who among many other awards won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2015 for Between Riverside and Crazy—is a master of profanity is immediately evident when we spy Victor (John Procaccino); he is clad only in his boxer shorts, and he has slept next to what he thought was Sister Rose all night.
We don’t know why he is in boxer shorts, but he immediately encounters a cop, Balthazar (Joey Auzenne), and, theirs, just like many exchanges, is both laugh-out-loud funny and revealing of so much more. Walt Spangler's design sensibly does not try to occupy the large Signature stage with tricks and complicated mechanics; the stage is simply split into different areas—it is simple and all these vivid, large characters need.
When Rooftop (Hill Harper), a DJ visiting his home turf from out west, goes to confession with Father Lux (a dour John Doman), at first their encounter seems purely humorous. Rooftop won’t get to the point, Father Lux (Rooftop, thanks to his Catholic education, knows that “lux” means light) is desperate for him to get to the point. But this relationship quickly becomes more profound, especially as Father Lux reveals something deeply personal and dark of himself, a crisis of faith and also inner prejudice.
Rooftop has regret over the breakdown of his marriage to Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and she has little good to say about him.
Nothing, except extensive quotation, would do justice to Bernstine’s fabulously fiercely delivered denunciations of Rooftop, and yet this relationship has just as much raw pain behind it as the painful memories expressed by Balthazar. Guirgis as adept at making us feel, piercingly, as he is making us laugh, uproariously.
How personal things get frequently makes you gasp. On the outside, the gay couple Flip (Jimonn Cole) and Gail (Kevin Isola) are stuck in the middle of sour bickering. Flip, a lawyer, wants to re-closet himself while he’s back in the neighborhood and begs Flip, an actor, to “tone it down” a bit. Isola plays Flip as both a ham actor and a proud and out a gay man. Flip wastes no time in telling him what a rotten, failed actor he is.
Guirgis’ characters are nothing if not direct. Norca (Paola Lázaro) think she recognizes Sonia (Dierdre Friel) as a schooldays tormentor. But it’s a case of mistaken identity—something which happens to Sonia a lot, she says—and so getting slapped is extremely unmerited.
Edwin (Erick Betancourt) and Pinky (Maki Borden) are brothers; the latter has mental health issues, the former takes on the lion’s share of care of him. Pinky is frighteningly vulnerable and sweetly earnest, demanding hugs from his brother, who loves him too and also feels trapped into his care.
When Sister Rose’s niece Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba) has an asthma attack in front of Edwin—probably the best and craziest asthma attack you will see on stage—it leads to a spark between them both.
It’s a spark of plain-spokenness; a meet-cute with two people who bluntly express exactly how they feel, including when it comes to Edwin challenging Marcia to make her romantic intentions clear. There’s no time for prevaricating here; his job, his life, is to take care of his brother. Does she want to be part of it? Marcia wants something here too, a real personal connection, but will she be able to achieve it?
Guirgis has such a talent for how people speak and relate to one another, we instantly believe all of the characters on stage—everything in their wit, fallibilities, and strengths. Profanity, painful truth, confession, jokes, baiting: this is discourse at its most human.
It really feels as if we have dropped on a random cross-section of New York, and the play is like being caught in a brilliant, funny, invective-packed slipstream.
When we leave it, we leave it not knowing what really happens to these characters—despite some clarification on the fate of the corpse of poor Sister Rose.
Their stories were in process at the beginning, and they’re in the process when we leave them. In their desire to connect, what we really see is the human capacity for selfishness. The play is about people treating each other badly, regretting it, being resigned to it and its damage, and trying to move on past the mess of it to… well, the unknown.
The lady next to me turned to me after the hearty applause had subsided, pointed to the stage, and said of the characters, “I want more – more of them.” That crystallizes Guirgis’ accomplishment. Our time with these folks after two beautifully written and directed hours feels like it should have only just begun.
Our Lady of 121st Street is at the Pershing Square Signature Center, NYC, until June 10. Book here.