OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET * Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis * Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman * Performed by the LAByrinth Theater Company, Union Square Theatre, New York City (open run).

New York, New York, it’s a helluva town. Sister Rose was a mean drunk of an Irish nun schoolteacher in Harlem when she fell in the gutter and died. But she’d done so much selfless service in her life that all the kids she ever taught remember her fondly and show up at the funeral home to pay their respects. Only thing is, somebody has stolen the body. 

That’s where Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street begins. And the play riotously tracks the next 24 hours in the lives of a vaudevillean parade of over-the-top characters, kids from a tough neighborhood having an unscheduled reunion as adults. Rooftop (Ron Cephas Jones) is a successful LA radio personality who’s come back for the funeral mostly hoping to reconnect with his ex-wife Inez (Portia), who’s remarried and has no time for his jive-ass bullshit. Flip (Russell G. Jones) is a lawyer who flies in from Wisconsin, accompanied by his hysterical white actor-wannabe boyfriend Gail (Scott Hudson). Balthazar (Felix Solis) is a brooding cop with troubles of his own who has stuck close to the ‘hood and is investigating the disappearance of Sister Rose’s body. His suspicions focus on "Nasty" Norca (Liza Colon-Zayas) , who vividly lives up to her nickname. Rose’s sister Marcia (Elizabeth Canavan) shows up and instantly hooks her high-strung neurotic attachment on building superintendent Edwin (David Zayas), whose life revolves around taking care of his brother Pinky (Al Roffe), whom he accidentally beaned with a brick as a kid, leaving him an effusively loving simpleton. 

The play grew out of the author’s association with the LAByrinth Theater Company, originally a studio for the development of Latino and black actors, and it’s a fantastic showcase for an array of terrific performers who look more like real people than the actors we’re used to seeing -- a little louder and a little lumpier. The play’s language has echoes of David Mamet and Quentin Tarantino, but the content is pure New York nitty-gritty. The biggest laugh of the night is a real-estate joke. "Do you know where I could get an apartment for $500 a month?" Gail asks Edwin, who replies, "I dunno -- Delaware?" 

It’s not a perfect play by any means. In this tapestry, certain figures are very detailed and others very sketchy. The gay characters fall into the latter category -- Flip is a complete cipher, and Gail is little more than a walking fag-joke, with as much authenticity as the drag queen director Philip Seymour Hoffman played onscreen in Flawless. Still, Guirgis gets high marks for crafting the play as an original cross between a comic book and a prayer of rage, pain, and mourning for the innocence that is as surely lost as that dead nun’s body.

The Advocate, April 15, 2003