A smooth sheen covers Phylicia Rashad’s production of Our Lady of 121st Street, on stage at the Pershing Square Signature Center. One imagines that her years as a television star influenced her conception of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s episodic play, which chronicles the interactions between mourners at the aborted wake of a beloved and feared Harlem nun. The short scenes unspool with heightened humor and precisely timed beats, like sitcom acts gliding toward a commercial break. But this approach tends to blunt the gritty, unspoken truths that define the bruised characters taking up space at the Ortiz Funeral Home.
Guirgis supplies the barest slip of a plot, which serves little more function than to get his personae in the same room. On the morning of her funeral, Sister Rose’s body disappears — her casket stands empty near the far stage wall, festooned with flowers and devotional candles. A detective (Joey Auzenne, giving a sincere, restrained performance) takes statements, but the missing corpse rarely comes up in conversation after the first scene; the lives Rose influenced, for better or worse, are the news here.
In many ways, Our Lady of 121st Street borrows from a tradition established in plays like The Iceman Cometh and The Time of Your Life, where people come together to cry, drink, and reopen old wounds. Guirgis may work bluer than O’Neill or Saroyan — this is the second play of his I’ve seen where a character references fucking someone in the ass with a dildo — but his overall mission toes the same line: to provide a slice-of-life portrait of people with shared histories and expectations to obey or surmount. His characters often brim with bravado, but their pain is barely disguised.
Rashad has the most success when she allows those quiet moments of reflection and revelation to breathe. An unguarded confession by an aging parish priest, played with easy gravitas by John Doman, stands out for its brutal honesty and bitter wit. Quincy Tyler Bernstine offers a beautiful portrait of a woman whose polished exterior hides a crushed spirit, who describes herself as “a woman [who] got a bombed-out graveyard for a mothafuckin’ heart.” Jimonn Cole expresses the double consciousness of a gay black man who feels alienated from his community, always staying a step ahead of anyone discovering his true self.
But as the play wears on, these moments feel subjugated to something hollow. The physical production contributes to the problem, with Walt Spangler’s segmented, cartoonish set a particular misfire. Three distinct locations — the viewing room of the funeral home, the bar next door, and a confessional booth — are surrounded by acres of open space. Standard theatrical masking is absent, revealing lighting instruments and rigging. This not only makes the cavernous Irene Diamond Stage seem even larger, but it also suggests a meta-theatricality that isn’t otherwise borne out elsewhere in Rashad’s production.
The overall image of these large, separate areas calls to mind a film or television soundstage, with unfinished rooms meant only to be seen through a camera lens. It takes the audience out of the veristic world Guirgis aims to create.
Actors tend to rush from scene to scene at breakneck pace, never lingering long enough in a moment to find the emotional center. This only accentuates the less convincing performances in the ensemble. Hill Harper particularly struggles to convey the inner life of Rooftop, a neighborhood kid turned wealthy radio host who uses braggadocio to keep the world at arm’s length. He doesn’t have the swagger or the sweetness the role requires.
But Harper isn’t alone in seeming rudderless, which made me wonder how much guidance the actors really had. I left thinking that those who succeeded in their characterizations (Doman, Bernstine, Cole, Auzenne) did so through their own innate talent and intelligence rather than any directorship. The production itself is weaker for that fact.
I also spent a lot of time wondering why the plot feels so inconsequential. I wanted to learn more about the woman who brought all these people together, and why someone felt such passion towards her — good passion or bad passion — that they stole her body. I’m not convinced I would have fixated on these questions watching a stronger staging.
Guirgis set out to absorb his audience, but this production ends up not unlike Sister Rose’s casket: it’s slick and shiny, but there’s nothing inside.
Our Lady of 121st Street runs to June 17, 2018. More production info can be found here.