City Cabaret
Twitter Icon Facebook Icon

Our Lady of 121st Street

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors


Our Lady of 121st Street
Quincy Tyler Brunstine, Hill Harper, Deirdre Friel, Kevin Isola. Photo by: Monique Carboni

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 

There is trouble at the Ortiz Funeral Home Funeral Home.  Flower arrangements bank the open casket, chairs are ready for expected viewers in respect to the late beloved nun, Sister Rose.  But where is the corpse, Sister Rose?

Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has fashioned a dark, insightful and strangely hilarious local slice of life in Our Lady at 121st Street at the Signature Theater.  Detective Balthazar has been sent to the Ortiz Funeral Home to investigate.  There is no sign of forced entry, just Victor (Procaccino), an incensed would-be mourner, wandering around, puzzled, dressed only in underwear.  "Ya know, 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."  (That brought a laugh from the audience.)

Directed by actress Phyllis Rachad, the cast is colorful, verbose with earthy, profane, jivey New York City street talk, a talent that Guirgis has proven he could deliver in previous plays, including the Pulitzer Prize winner, Between Riverside and Crazy.  This is raw humanity, glibly laid on the line.  Sister Rose had offered understanding and tough love in the Harlem neighborhood, having come from the hard life herself with childhood abuse and alcoholism.  She influenced everyone, including Det. Balthazar who used to live in the area.  The theft of the corpse is Guirgis' smoke screen to meeting some intriguing denizens of the hood.

In short vignettes, Det. Balthazar (Joey Auzenne) questions a handful of conflicted characters on 121st Street, going about their lives while heading for a funeral that will never take place.  Their stories illustrate Guirgis' play, many taking place on Walt Spangler's sectioned funeral home set.  Balthazar delivers some anecdotes from his own past that could point to the resolution of the crime -- if there were a resolution, but there is not.  The ending is left unresolved, keeping questions unanswered, much like the characters who continue their searches of why life is like it is, why are people unforgiving?  Why do they lie?  And what about the Catholic church?

This last question is touched upon in one hilarious segment as talky Rooftop (Hill Harper) goes to the church for confession with Father Lux, trying to remember the last time he was in church, what his sins were, rambling incoherently as he smokes weed. Harper triumphs as an indefatigable Rooftop whose long-winded interaction with the despondent paraplegic priest played by John Doman, is memorable.

Characters are multilayered.  Rooftop, currently a DJ in Los Angeles, has a fiery ex-wife, Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine) who is still angry at him after his affair with combustible Norca, portrayed by Paola Lázaro like a roller derby queen.   With a light touch of sympathy two brothers are irrevocably tied to each other, Edwin (Erick Betancourt) who is responsible for his mentally challenged brother, Pinky (Maki Borden), stunting Edwin's personal life.  He meets and saves Sister Rose's niece, Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba), when she has an unusual asthmatic attack.  There is also the haphazard appearances of deadpan Sonia (Dierdre Friel), whom no one seems to know.  She is slapped by Norca.  Why?  She comes from Connecticut.

Quirky idiosyncrasies imbue the characters with mixes of humor and simpatico.  A gay couple arrives from out of town.  Determined to assimilate in his old hood, Flip (Jimonn Cole) wants his partner, Gail (Kevin Isola), to temper his flashiness.  "Look, Drama Empress: Just turn it down a few notches and be here for me. Quiet and dignified. Can you do that, yes or no?!" 

Meetings are at the funeral home, church, a bar and in Act Two, back in the funeral home.  No problems were solved, nor was the crime of the missing corpse.  The play ends as these diverse characters finish this part of their stories, profanity and all.  And yes, Victor gets his pants back.


Our Lady of 121st Street

Pershing Square Signature Center
480 - West 42 St, New York, NY
Previews: May 1, 2018. Opening: May 20, 2018. Closing: June 17, 2018
Running time: Two hours. One intermission.
Cast: Joey Auzenne, Quincy Tyler Bernstine, Erick Betancourt, Maki Borden, Jimonn Cole, John Doman, Dierdre Friel, Hill Harper, Kevin Isola, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Paola Lázaro, and John Procaccino
Playwright: Stephen Adly Guirgis
Director: Phylicia Rashad 
Review by Elizabeth Ahlfors
May 2018

Also can be read on