In today’s Wall Street Journal I review Signature Theatre’s off-Broadway revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Our Lady of 121st Street. Here’s an excerpt.
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Stephen Adly Guirgis’ progress as a playwright is one of the happiest theatrical stories of the past decade. From the flabby, sophomoric antics of “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot” in 2005 to the taut discipline of “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which won and deserved a Pulitzer in 2015, Mr. Guirgis has come a long, long way, all of it in the right direction. So it’s interesting to look back at “Our Lady of 121st Street,” the 2002 play that helped establish him as an up-and-comer, and reflect on how he got from there to here. “Our Lady” has just been revived by Signature Theatre in an off-Broadway production directed by Phylicia Rashad, whose acting credentials need no repeating but who is now trying her hand as a stage director (this is her New York debut). The results, if uneven, are mostly pleasing, and the play itself, of which much the same could be said, comes through with all sails billowing….
The title character of “Our Lady of 121st Street,” a Harlem nun, is never seen. Literally: Sister Rose died shortly before the play gets underway, and her corpse has been stolen from the funeral home where it was being viewed prior to burial. While what happens to it is a plot development that I must keep under wraps, it’s not the point of the play, which consists of a string of blackouts in which we meet her mourners, most of whom were once her students and all of whom have come to her wake to send her off in style….
The problem with “Our Lady of 121st Street,” as you surely already suspect, is that it’s essentially plotless. No matter how funny you are, it’s tough to keep a plotless comedy in motion—especially a serious one. Mr. Guirgis has since learned this lesson, and one of the reasons why “The Motherf**ker With the Hat” and “Between Riverside and Crazy” are so superior to “Our Lady” is that they are meticulously plotted exercises in dramatic storytelling in which the laughter is as much situation-driven as character-based. It’s a tribute to his inborn talent that he manages to make “Our Lady” work in spite of its aimlessness, and it’s no less a tribute to this well-cast revival that everybody in it, from the marvelous Quincy Tyler Bernstine right down the roster, makes a sharp and strongly flavored impression….
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Read the whole thing here.
The trailer for Our Lady of 121st Street: