Our Lady of 121st Street: Best New Play in a Decade

I’ve rarely loved a play as much Our Lady of 121st Street . The immensely gifted Stephen Adly Guirgis just fills me with hope, desperate though he is. His urban voice is startlingly fresh and new-an unmistakable great talent in the wilderness. From his combustible opening line-“What kinda fuckin’ world is this?!”-he frequently has us convulsed with laughter. Mr. Guirgis writes in infectious, liberating fury and sadness. No one can be this funny without feeling the pain of being alive and, in the end, you’ll surely find yourselves moved by his bruised characters in search of some kind of grace and weird redemption.

At the same time, Our Lady , directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is brilliantly performed by a cast that’s bringing a new authentic reality onstage. The playwright himself is a sometime actor. Actor-playwrights have been known to write great virtuoso roles, often with themselves in mind. Philip Seymour Hoffman, the actor, needs no introduction. Between the two of them, the LAByrinth Theater Company’s cast of relative unknowns at the Union Square Theater is giving us the finest acting in town.

Our Lady ‘s brief opening scene alone singles out Mr. Guirgis as an unpredictable, original mind whose talent is on a par even with the manic farce and subterfuge of Joe Orton. What do we first see (and hear)? A furious man named Vic is standing in his underpants by an empty casket in a Harlem funeral home. “What kinda fuckin’ world is this?! I mean, am I alone here?”

He is not alone. With him is a deadpan man named Balthazar, who’s an alcoholic cop. “What are you, a cop?” Vic asks. “No, Vic, I’m a farmer,” Balthazar replies. “I came here to sell some eggs.”

But Vic is unstoppable, ranting in his underwear, and Richard Petrocelli, playing the terrific cameo, has us riveted by his explosive indignation. We don’t yet know what’s troubling him. But he does. “There are limits,” Vic protests. “I don’t give a shit! Maybe you grew up in a God-less jungle, but I remember when the world was not this! And this? This is not the world!”

“O.K.,” says Balthazar (Felix Solis in a perfect, understated performance). But before long, Balthazar will say mildly, “Gotta ask you about your pants, Vic.”

It turns out that Vic has come to the Ortiz Funeral Home to pay his respects to the beloved and feared Sister Rose, who’s just died of alcoholism. Almost all the characters in Our Lady were taught by Sister Rose. It’s a reunion play in that respect. But Sister Rose’s body has been stolen by some gang of punks who also stole Vic’s trousers. “Ya know,” Vic adds, “if Rudy were still in office, this woulda never happened-I’m sure of it! He wouldn’t of took this lyin’ down for two seconds …. “

Mr. Guirgis’ ear for the vernacular is perfect, the violent street obscenities fine-tuned. A charmer referred to as “nasty Norca” (Liza Colón-Zayas, another awesomely real actor in the troupe) is asked by the ever-patient Balthazar where she was the previous night between 10 p.m. and 9 a.m. “I was at your mother’s house fuckin’ her in her ass wid a strap on-dass where I was!”

“Very funny.”

“You see anybody laughin’?” asks nasty Norca.

Our Lady is a play of vignettes, and Mr. Guirgis takes us by surprise so much with each unfolding scene that this rave review comes with an unusual warning: Best to read no further, perhaps, if you don’t want to know who enters the escalating hysteria.

Still here? I’ll try to give the atmosphere of remarkable things. We next meet someone named Rooftop, who’s taking confession. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned-a lot, know what I’m sayin’?”

The likable Rooftop-Ron Cephas Jones in a masterly, easeful performance – is nicely stoned, chronically unfaithful. His bitter ex-wife, Inez-played by a talented lady billed as Portia, the only actress I know with one name, unless we count Cher-describes Rooftop as a fink “who cherry-popped every Jordache bubble-butt from 96th on up.” But the gruff, disillusioned Father Lux of Mark Hammer grows impatient with his jittery sidetracks. “A confessional , not a conversational,” he protests.

“Still,” Rooftop says to him, “even Hank Aaron hit a few off the practice tee before he stepped up to the rock-gotta marinate before ya grill, right?”

“This is not a ‘cook-out’, sir,” says Father Lux.

Much of Our Lady’s first act appears farcical and edgily dark-humored, and all good farces skirt the stereotypical. Enter Gail (Scott Hudson) and Flip (Russell G. Jones), bickering gay lovers. Flip, the lawyer returning to the hood for the wake, is back in the closet for the day. “Denial’s like a pair of Prada silk pajamas,” his lover chastises him. “The price is just too high.”

Then there’s Edwin and Pinky (David Zayas and Al Roffe), who could be the dramatist’s nod to Of Mice and Men . Trapped and utterly frustrated Edwin cares lovingly for his simpleton brother, Pinky. He lives in crushing guilt. As a child, he accidentally threw a brick out of the window that landed on Pinky’s head.

So the play rolls merrily along, particularly with the evening’s most hilarious turn by Elizabeth Canavan as Marcia, the asthmatic, violently neurotic niece of Sister Rose.

“Why donchu hang out, have a Yodel?” Edwin says to her thoughtfully.

“I’m allergic to chocolate,” Marcia replies.

“Have a soda, then.”

“Caffeine?”

“How ’bout a slice of pizza?”

“Pizza!” she erupts. “Hello? Cheese?! God, did someone throw a brick on your head, too?!”

And, lastly-not to be left behind-there’s displaced, recessive Sonia, who’s always left behind. Melissa Feldman plays her in another perfect cameo performance from the ensemble. Nobody quite knows what Sonia is doing there. She’s from Connecticut.

Act II has its laughter, to be sure, but it is the dramatist’s seamless transition to quiet revelation that makes him a poet of tender mercies. On the one hand, his characters in comic desperation explode with vitality and obscene anger. They’re at the bursting point, at the end of their rope. And how have you been feeling lately?

On the other hand, they touch our hearts. Mr. Guirgis isn’t sentimental. He knows that life is hard and incomprehensible, and souls get killed, and saints reside in unlikely places.

This is his third play, but if Stephen Adly Guirgis is a new voice, Our Lady of 121st Street is the best new play I’ve seen in a decade.