Jul-Aug '03 [Home]

Other Arts: Theatre

Dark Delights of the Complete Meal:
LAByrinth Theatre Company Offers Our Lady of 121st Street

by Paul Camillus
. . .

Stephen Adly Guirgis's newest work, Our Lady of 121st Street, is quite simply a helluva play. After seeing it last night, I felt the need to see it again, as it was much too rich to digest in one sitting. Unfortunately, the show may close by the time you read this, but should certainly resurface somewhere. If you've been lulled into accepting lesser fare by TV and even Broadway offerings, this may restore your faith.

Set in lower Harlem, some pretty diverse people (a nice racial mix) have come to attend the funeral of their beloved teacher, Sister Rose. The play lets us gradually into the lives of twelve characters, most of them her former students.

Sister Rose's embalmed body is actually missing—just one of the mysteries of the evening. The sometimes stylized performances are hilarious, and the direction, by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is as taut as it gets. (Chicago's Steppenwolf and their ensemble playing comes to mind.) Even the between-scenes music, by Eric Dearmon, is memorable—always a good sign.

Lost love, lost hope, lost lives. There is very little uplift here of the usual kind. It's more like sifting through the rubble after a bomb hits. Hoping against hope.

Anton Chekhov's short story, "Gooseberries," contains a line about the need for "a little man with a hammer" to tap some sense into you that sooner or later you'll come up against it. Our Lady has that little man with a hammer, Stephen Adly Guirgis, the playwright, and he bangs that hammer, right where you live, all night long. Amid the rage and hilarity, Mr. Guirgis has also sprinkled bits of wisdom like rare spices. It's a potent combination.

Scott Hudson is a standout as Gail, the "queeny" boyfriend of a former student, who keeps asking people whether he "seems gay." The answer is always yes, an emphatic yes, but also funnier and more heartbreaking each time the question is posed.

Lisa Colon-Zayas is brutally good as Norca, a street kid with an attitude bigger than she is, who lashes out at one and all. She spouts fire and venom with helpless abandon and doesn't say or do a pleasant thing all night long. But you feel the pain. And after a while it becomes your pain too.

David Zayas is a powerful "everyman" as Edwin, a long-suffering "super" who looks after his brain-damaged brother, Pinky Pinky, a slow-thinking little guy played by Adrian Martinez with such veracity that I actually looked in my program to see whether he might be on loan from some assisted-living home. He's not, he's an actor, and a damn good one.

The cast are all members of LAByrinth Theatre Company, an ethnically diverse group, started in 1992. Mr. Guirgis was originally an actor there and director Philip Seymour Hoffman is co-founder. The group has also done plays by John Patrick Shanley, among others.

Some members of the audience seemed stunned or overwhelmed by the whole recipe, preferring the appetizer and salad, but resisting a little the dark delights of the complete meal. If you're starving, you've got to start with smaller doses; maybe your stomach shrinks, I don't know. But there's a banquet here, a lush feast, and you get to take the leftovers home to chew over for a long time.

I once was part of an argument about the Greek notion of catharsis, that gut-purging concept introduced by Aristotle. If you see Our Lady, and let it in, you won't need to look up that word ever again.

For me, a play like this is the reason theater was invented. Sure, it's a little uneven. So is Oedipus Rex.

Our Lady of 121st. Street, at the Union Square Theatre, closes July 27th.