17 June 2018

Short Takes: Some Art Shows

[I seem to be on something of an art jag on Rick On Theater just now (“Akunnittinni: A Kinngait Family Portrait” on 15 January; “Art New York 2018” on 13 May; “Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900-1960” on 12 June), so I thought I’d dig up some comments on past art shows that are too brief to post on their own (they were parts of longer reports mostly about theater) and collect them in a “Short Takes”—something I haven’t done in a long time now—and post them for a look back.  (The dates on each section below are the dates I wrote the original report; they are not necessarily the dates of the exhibits or my visit.  Multiple dates indicate I wrote the complete report in installments.)  One of the following mini-reports is on Edward Hopper, an exhibit I saw at the National Gallery of Art in 2008 and which I mentioned in my recent post on the Whitney Museum’s Where We Are.  Another segment below is on the Barnes Collection when it was at its original home in Merion, Pennsylvania, before it moved to Philadelphia.  I haven’t seen the collection since the move, so I don’t know if the lay-out duplicates the initial set-up, mandated by founder Albert C. Barnes, but that arrangement of the art was unique, to say the least, and I though it would be interesting to record my impressions of that peculiar display.  ~Rick]

9 & 12 January 2003

Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. (22 September 2002-19 January 2003), is interesting, but less so than its size would suggest.  It’s a big show, installed on three floors of the gallery (two flights of stairs to climb), and covers his paintings, etchings and prints, posters and illustrations, sketches, and photos.  That was part of the interesting aspect—that this artist, who really began as a dilettante, explored so many different forms of expression, including the very new technique of photography.  (The photos on display were all from around 1900—some original prints and some new prints from old negatives.) 

There were works from his earliest days right through the end of his life, but the most interesting works for me were his prints and etchings.  These were mostly small—though there was a wonderful three-panel screen (he did several screens, inspired, apparently, by the Japanese practice) of scenes from the Paris street.  Many of his prints were no more than four colors—a practice he experimented with frequently.  Bonnard (1867-1947) was also one of the first “graphic artists” and he got his professional start making advertising posters (for champagne, for instance), some of which resemble the famous theater posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  He also did illustrations for books and was one of the very first graphic artists to use text as part of the artwork—not just the content, but the style.  Bonnard’s paintings were pretty much the least interesting part of this show. 

*  *  *  *
11-13 May 2004

A small show, The Cubist Paintings of Diego Rivera: Memory, Politics, Place, was at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building (4 April-25 July 2004): an exhibit of Diego Rivera’s cubist paintings.  Rivera (1886-1957) went to Paris in the 1920s to study contemporary art on a stipend from the government from his home state in Mexico.  He was in the circle that included Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Marcel Duchamps, and others, and he began trying out all the current styles, including Cubism, for brief periods, trying to find his own voice.  None of these experiments lasted very long, and there weren’t many cubist works in the show—and most of them were interesting only as curiosities the way Picasso’s realistic works as a young artist are.  They merely contrast with the more identifiable works of the maturer artists—in Rivera’s case, the murals and Mexican history and folklore he worked with for most of his career.

*  *  *  *
21-25 August 2006

On Wednesday, 16 August 2004, my mother and I went down to the East Building of the National Gallery to see Henri Rousseau: Jungles in Paris (16 July-15 October 2006).  Rousseau (1844-1910) isn’t among my favorite artists; in fact, I find his paintings curious without being really compelling.  After reading the Washington Post review, however, I found him an interesting socio-artistic phenomenon.  First, he was unschooled as an artist.  He was a weekend duffer, so to speak, until he retired from his job as a customs clerk at 49—he was known in the art world as Le Douanier (the customs agent)—when he took up painting full time.  His aim was to be accepted by the Paris art establishment, which was committed to Realism, but he failed completely. 

He was, however, embraced by the avant garde, the upstart Impressionists and their literary confrères (Guillaume Apollinaire; Alfred Jarry, who gave him his nickname).  Picasso bought several of Rousseau’s paintings, as did others among the new, young artists and writers—whom Rousseau rejected.  (He found Matisse’s work “horribly ugly.”)  The irony is too much.  The fact seems to be that Rousseau really stumbled onto his naïve style and bold forms—he was trying to paint Realism and didn’t have the skill.  By sheer coincidence, he was doing naturally what the Impressionists were trying to do, and they had a fondness for “primitive” art.  They usually found this in far-off cultures like Africa, but in Rousseau, they saw their very own, homegrown primitive.  (All those jungle paintings, which were his most popular and are his most recognizable today, are the products of his imagination and his visits to natural history museums and international exhibitions or from magazine illustrations.  Rousseau never left France, and rarely left Paris.  His notion of the jungle wasn’t close to accurate—or he took tremendous liberties—since he combined images that don’t belong together, such as an American Indian fighting with a gorilla—in the rain forests of, what?  Illinois?) 

The Post even poses a provocative paradox: “Rousseau’s best paintings are undeniably great . . . .  But that begs the question of whether the man who made them was also a great artist.”  When he died penniless and was buried in a pauper’s grave, Picasso and fellow artist Robert Delaunay paid for a better plot, Apollinaire wrote a poem for the headstone, and sculptor Constantin Brancusi engraved it.  I don’t care much about his art, but Rousseau’s story is wonderful.

As part of the exhibit, the gallery is displaying many of the sources of Rousseau’s fantasies—a stuffed lion attacking an antelope from a natural history museum, illustrations in nature magazines, and so on.  Among these are two large bronze statues by Emmanuel Frémiet (described in the Post as “a hack realist”).  One of them is called Gorilla Carrying Off a Woman (1887), and that’s just what it depicts.  It looks exactly like a scene from King Kong (except that the woman is more Jane Russell than Fay Wray).  The museum labels and panels don’t say if this was in any way connected to the movie—say an inspiration for it—but you have to wonder if someone like the screenwriter or the director, whoever originally conceived of the movie, hadn’t seen the sculpture.  I mean, it’s just too exact.

*  *  *  *
17 January 2007

Mom and I drove over to Charm City (I don’t know, either) to see an exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art and got my cousin, who lives in Baltimore, to meet us there.  The show, A View Toward Paris: The Lucas Collection of 19th-Century French Art (1 October–31 December 2006), had gotten an interesting review in the Washington Post and was going to close on the last day of the year, so we went over on Thursday, 28 December 2006, on what turned out to be a beautiful afternoon. 

George A. Lucas (1824-1909) was the heir to a Baltimore papermaking fortune who made a trip to Paris in 1857 and ended up staying 52 years, until his death.  He became an art collector, both for himself and as agent for others back in the U.S (including Duncan Phillips, whose art became the basis for the Phillips Collection in Washington; William and Henry Walters, who formed the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore; and William Corcoran, founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in D.C.).  Lucas was instrumental in bringing many of the late-19th-century painters on the Paris art scene to the attention of American collectors and critics.  But he had one peculiarity in retrospect (though it wouldn’t have seemed so at the time): he liked the art that everyone else liked, including the contemporary critics—the mainstream art, not the avant-garde work by the Impressionists and the Post-Impressionists.  As a result, the works and artists he championed weren’t the ones that later went down in art history as the greats of the era and have emerged as the icons of modern art. 

This isn’t to say Lucas collected bad art or supported mediocre artists—they were the stars of their day, in fact, and the point of the exhibit, in a way, is a reappreciation of these neglected painters who are often totally unknown today—undeservedly so, according to Post critic Blake Gopnik.  (Gopnik points out that one artist, August Molin, “doesn’t appear once in the 32,600 pages of the Grove Dictionary of Art, and even a thorough Google search comes up with all of two hits that have anything to do with him.”  He suggests that “his impressive walk-on part in the Lucas show will get some graduate student to dig deeper.”)  Since most of the works fall into the Realism and Romanticism categories—not my favorite styles of painting—and only a few barely touch on the emerging Impressionist challenge, the medium-sized show (200 works) became a little repetitive for me, but there were certainly some charming pieces.  (Nothing for a Midnight Shopping Trip, though.) 

What’s more, a number of the artists in the exhibit were the teachers of the emerging Impressionists or had been influential on their development.  In addition, the comparison of the works in Lucas’s collection—he ended up with 300 paintings and almost 20,000 prints—with the more famous works of the late 19th century not only shows a little of the development of the groundbreaking innovation that was Impressionism but also raises your appreciation for those iconoclastic artists and their work. (Impressionism is one of my favorite styles of art.)  It wasn’t a great art exhibit, and not to my mind as interesting as the Picasso and American Art at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City a few months ago (28 September 2006–28 January 2007), but it was more than pleasant, and had its virtues.  (One curiosity, because Lucas developed relationships with many of the artists whose works he bought, was that some of the painters presented him with their palettes—some just as they had been used for work and others with art added as a lagniappe.)

Besides the art, Mom, my cousin, and I had lunch in the museum restaurant.  And, since we were in Baltimore, I got to have crab cakes from an authentic Maryland kitchen!  Unless you’ve had crab cakes from within shouting distance of the Chesapeake, you haven’t lived!!  (If you’ve had them anywhere else, conversely, you have no idea what you’re missing.)

*  *  *  *
THE BARNES COLLECTION (Merion, Pennsylvania)
20 August/20 September/27 September 2007

[The Barnes Collection reopened at its new building in Philadelphia on 19 May 2012.]

On my return to New York City on Friday, 17 August 2007, after a visit with my mother in Washington, Mom decided to accompany me so we could make a detour to Merion, Pennsylvania, the suburb of Philadelphia where the Barnes Collection is located (until they move to Philadelphia as they plan).  In part because of the way Albert C. Barnes set his foundation up and the restrictions he put on it in his will, this is also a confusing collection—although the quality of the art makes up some for the oddness of the display.  (I won’t go into all the peculiarities of the legal set-up—it’s been in the news for the past several years as the board has sought permission to move from Merion into Philadelphia—but he mandated that no painting could be moved, either on the walls or from the building.  This is why the courts are involved in the proposed move, which the museum’s directors feel is necessary to increase attendance and income in order to maintain the collection.) 

Barnes (1872-1951), who became wealthy from a pharmaceutical invention he made in the early 20th century, also became interested in art, especially modern art (though he also has an extensive collection of African pieces) and began collecting here and in Europe at the turn of the last century into the years before WWII.  Now, some guys who do that end up with awful pieces by some of the most famous artists of the modern canon, but Barnes had excellent taste and he has a beautiful collection of Monets, Cézannes, Prendergasts (both brothers), Modiglianis, Lipschitzes (mostly sculptures), Klees, Picassos, Rouaults, and so on. 

But the paintings are mounted on walls in no order or thematic arrangement whatsoever, and they are hung from about waist height to about 10-12 feet off the ground.  (Mother said that when she first went there years ago, they were hung all the way to the ceiling.)  They’re not labeled (though the artists’ last names are sometimes on the frames) so the only way to identify the paintings (none of the sculptures or other objects—there are some tapestries and a lot of furniture pieces—are identified at all) is to go to the small placards placed in each room.  These are a photograph of each wall (or, when the wall is long and full of art, half the wall) with each picture frame numbered.  Below the photo of the wall layout is a list with corresponding numbers that names the paintings, the artists, the dates, and the media, like the wall labels on most other museums. 

Since there are at least four different layouts in each room, and there are several copies of each placard, you have to shuffle through all of them to find the wall you want to look at, then find the next one, and so on.  Not only is this an annoying task, it’s also time-consuming; the visit to each gallery takes at least half again as long as it otherwise would.  The galleries—there are two floors of art; Barnes had 2500 pieces when he died in 1951—are also dimly lit and there are no lights on each painting.  (This is not a building converted from a residence or anything; it was built, albeit in the ’20s, to be an art gallery.)  As I said, if it weren’t for the quality of the man’s art, the Barnes would be a monumentally frustrating place to visit. 

*  *  *  *
            4 February 2008           
(21 December 2007-4 January 2008)

[I quoted from these comments in my report on the Whitney’s Where We Are.]

Im not really a fan of Edward Hopper, but Ill give a very brief (well, superficial anyway) run-down of the National Gallery exhibit nonetheless.  A fairly large show was at the East Building of the NGA on the Mall.  We went down to see Edward Hopper on Boxing Day, 26 December 2008, and encountered a very long line snaking around the second floor of the East Building.  The line kept growing even as we stood debating whether we should switch over to the West Building and give J. M. W. Turner a try; but fortunately, it moved quickly and we spent a pleasant-enough afternoon walking through the several galleries housing the 110 works of the show. 

Hopper (1882-1967) doesnt move me; I find his work cold and emotionless.  His lack of human figures in most of his paintings leaves them bloodless and vacant.  Even in the works with people, they are distant and alone—unengaged.  I know that this is what Hoppers fans find intriguing in his work, and its surely a fascinating psychological insight into his art, but it makes his paintings an intellectual curiosity to me, not an artistic experience.  He was captivated by architecture and the way light and shadow played on buildings and houses and he could paint the same one from different angles and at different times of the day over and over to try to capture the various ways the light fell, but this is a study to me, not an aesthetic evocation. 

Hopper painted at the same time that many other American artists were turning away from figuration and experimenting with abstraction and expressionism (and, er, Abstract Expressionism), but he fiercely resisted the shift and became an icon among younger and later artists of figurative painting.  (Not surprisingly, I guess, I am a fan of abstract art; I know some commentators—not necessarily art critics, however—see that movement as a fraud on gullible viewers, arguably most famously the late Morley Safer’s “Yes . . . but Is It Art?” segment on CBS’s 60 Minutes on 19 September 1993, but Ive always found the works exciting and moving, emotional and expressive.)  So I found the show, called simply Edward Hopper, pretty much just a curiosity; there was nothing I wanted to come back for on a Midnight Shopping Trip. 

This doesnt mean that I didnt learn anything, however.  The earliest works in the exhibit were etchings; I never knew Hopper did any kind of print work, and the 12 small etchings on show here, though they all displayed the same focus on empty cityscapes and lonely figures, were somehow more interesting to me than the later large oils.  (Hopper also painted watercolors in his early days.)  I will also add that theres a strange kind of theatricality in Hoppers paintings—not action or drama, but his interiors especially look like stage sets, a kind of set designers rendering. 

Theres an implied plot in some of them.  People sitting, essentially isolated even in a group, in a diner, viewed from the street through a long expanse of window (Nighthawks, 1942), make you wonder what might have just happened—or might be about to happen—in that single lighted room on a dark, empty street.  The woman, apparently an usher, leaning against a wall in a near-empty movie theater (New York Movie, 1939)whats she thinking about while the movies unreeling on the screen just out of her vision?  But these are intellectual curiosities, not emotionally-engaging ones.  A Hopper play would likely be one in which people sit around speaking in low tones—but only occasionally, leaving most of the play to silence.

[I mentioned in passing a “Midnight Shopping Trip” above a couple of times.  As regular ROTters will recall, this was my mother and my private joke, used as a benchmark for art shows we liked, suggesting a return after closing to pick up the pieces we liked.] 

12 June 2018

'Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900–1960'

My friend Diana, with whom I usually go to the theater, called me on the evening of Tuesday, 8 May, to tell me that the Whitney Museum of Art was holding a Member Night on Wednesday, the next evening.  Diana’s a member of the Whitney, which is now (since May 2015) located in Manhattan’s West Village, within walking distance from my apartment in the Flatiron District.  On designated Member Nights—the Whitney holds them throughout the year; we went to another one on 7 July—museum members get to spend two-and-a-half hours, 7:30 to 10 p.m., after the museum closes to the public (6 p.m. on Wednesdays) for free.  Each member may bring a guest—that would be me in this case—and there are some special events scheduled throughout the evening: talks, performances, demonstrations and workshops, music); while not all the museum’s facilities are open after closing, the main restaurant, Untitiled, the Studio Café and Bar on the eighth floor, and the museum shop and bookstore in the first-floor lobby are all operating.  All the exhibit galleries are open for viewing, and, after a light meal at Untitled, off the lobby north along Gansevoort Street in the shadow of the southern terminus of the High Line Park, we decided to go straight to the seventh floor where Where We Are: Selections from the Whitney’s Collection, 1900-1960 is on exhibit.

Where We Are opened on Friday, 28 April 2017, for an open-ended run.  It features artists drawn entirely from the Whitney’s holdings such as Louise Bourgeois, James Castle, Elizabeth Catlett, John Steuart Curry, Edward Hopper, Jasper Johns, Jacob Lawrence, Archibald Motley, Jr., Florentine Stettheimer, and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others.  Where We Are, comprising around 140 works, is organized by David Breslin, DeMartini Family Curator and Director of the Collection, with Jennie Goldstein, assistant curator, and Margaret Kross, curatorial assistant.

Spread out over several galleries, including the Jasper Bloomberg and Zelda  Bloomberg Outdoor Gallery, the works of painting, drawing, photography, and sculpture are separated into five themes: family and community, home, work, the nation, and the spiritual. The museum’s publicity explains the show’s rationale:

During the six decades covered here, the United States experienced war and peace, economic collapse and recovery, and social discord and progress.  American artists responded in complex and diverse ways, and a central aim of the exhibition is to honor each artist’s efforts to create her or his own vision of American life.  The artists and their works suggest that our sense of self is composed of our responsibilities, places, and beliefs.

The curators have taken the poem “September 1, 1939” by W. H. Auden (1907-73) as a sort of guiding template for the exhibit’s organization, using lines from the poem for the title of the entire exhibit and each of its sections: “No One Exists Alone,” a look at family relationships and responsibilities, filial and parental affection, and friendship; “The Furniture of Home,” an examination of “the objects with which we identify, the home [which] can serve as a window into the period when an artwork was made, a stand-in for its inhabitants, or a symbol of the class of its residents”; “The Strength of Collective Man,” displaying “works that portray the sites of production, scenes of working, and the individuals who constituted the workforce”; “In a Euphoric Dream,” featuring works by artists looking at the symbols of the United States to study the times in which they lived and the history of the country George Washington called a “great experiment” (in a letter to British historian Catherine Macaulay Graham on January 9, 1790); and “Of Eros and Dust,” representing artists who “sought recourse in spirituality and mysticism . . . through the symbolic, the sublime, the natural, and the abstract.”  

(The date in the title of Auden’s poem, written on the first day of World War II, is the date of the German invasion of Poland.  First published on 18 October 1939 in the magazine New Republic and then in book form in the Auden collection Another Time in 1940, the poem, speaking of anguish over events that have occurred and apprehension about the potential repercussions, has figured in several modern occasions in the United States.  A paraphrase of one of the poet’s lines, “We must love one another or die,” was included in a speech by Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson that became part of the famous “Daisy” campaign commercial for Johnson’s election in 1964.  In the commercial, which ran only once, on 7 September 1964, Johnson’s voice is heard saying “We must either love each other, or we must die.”  After the 11 September 2001 terror attacks, Scott Simon, host of Weekend Edition Saturday, read the poem on National Public Radio and it was widely discussed and reprinted in the days following the attacks.)

Having said all that about the themes and curatorial narrative of the Whitney’s Where We Are, I should confess that I was far more interested in the art—that is to say, the individual works and the artists whom I didn’t already know—than what the exhibit’s organizers intended to tell me about “how artists have approached the relationships, institutions, and activities that shape our lives.”  The whole relationship of the art and artists with Auden’s poem went pretty much right over my head.  The curators have written, for example:

Although mournful, the poem concludes by pointing to the individual’s capacity to “show an affirming flame.”  Where We Are shares Auden’s guarded optimism, gathering a constellation of artists whose light might lead us forward.

This strikes me as awfully pretentious and overblown, even for a museum self-promotion.  The poem’s a response to the first shots fired in what would become a six-year, worldwide armed conflict; most of the art wasn’t anything like that.  Furthermore, I don’t accept the suggestion the curators seem to be making that the artists’ intentions were to comment specifically and directly on the themes the organizers have carved out.  Theirs is a retrospective reinterpretation from the vantage point of a half century to a century after the art was created.  Somehow I doubt anyone asked the artists about their intentions—almost all of them are dead.  (As an acting teacher of mine used to say about playwrights no longer with us: We don’t have their telephone numbers.  Which makes the curators free, I guess, to say whatever they want.)

In the end, the thematic organization was irrelevant to me; the art itself was all that mattered.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed the show if for no other reason than it was largely made up of works from perhaps the greatest era so far of American art (IMHO), the post-World War II period of the ’40s to the ’60s.  The decades of the 20th century before that, from the century’s turn until the war cut us off from Europe’s cultural influence and allowed American artists to set a path of their own, was the cocoon out of which an indigenous American art emerged.  

Mind you, I should acknowledge here that the culmination of this period was the time when I first was introduced to modern art and the period of the art that most influenced my interest and taste.  (I’ve told the story of Gres Gallery and its connection to my family several times in this blog—see, for example, “Washington Art Matters,” 5 September 2013; “Yayoi Kusama,” 18 May 2017; “A Passion for Art,” 21 November 2017; and “Fernando Botero: Abu Ghraib (2007),” 26 November 2017; among other posts.  That started in 1958, or thereabouts, when I was 11, and continued through about 1961, the years when I was forming tastes and interests that would follow me into adulthood.  By the way, my tastes in music also began in those years as well; so did my interest in theater, though my appreciations in that field broadened considerably in the ensuing years.)

Though there are many wonderful artists in Where We Are, the star of the show is arguably painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who also happens to be a favorite of Diana’s (though not of mine; as I wrote in my 2008 report on Edward Hopper at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., this artist “doesnt move me; I find his work cold and emotionless”).  Visitors congregated around his paintings and the Whitney has scheduled an “Exhibition Talk,” one of the perks of attending a Member Night, on A Woman in the Sun (1961), one of the two Hopper canvases in “The Furniture of Home.”  Small crowds gathered for the four short (15-20 minutes) lectures by Whitney teaching fellow Janine DeFeo.  Diana and I listened in on this talk, which also included a stop at New York Interior (c. 1921), the other Hopper in this section of Where We Are.  

While DeFeo made some pointed comments about Hopper’s painting style, noting his use of light—one of his signatures—and space, the solitariness of the woman in the picture, and the sparseness of the room’s décor, I don’t really appreciate someone telling me what a piece of art “means,” since  by its nature, art means something different to each partaker.  Art—whether music, poetry, drama, or painting—means to me whatever I take from it, not what someone else tells me I should take from it.  Once again, we come up against the tendency of some “expert” deciding what the artist meant to communicate which, unless she or he left notes (and even then . . .), none of us can actually know.  (Diana complained strongly about commentators who “psychoanalyze” a painting, and I think this is what she objected to.) 

In her 1964 essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag asserts:

The aim of all commentary on art now should be to make works of art—and, by analogy, our own experience—more, rather than less, real to us.  The function of criticism should be to show how it is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather than to show what it means.

I have had a hard time agreeing with Sontag’s ban on interpretation for one fundamental reason: it’s not possible to experience a work of art—or nearly anything else—without finding some kind of meaning in it.  I think it’s human nature—we’re hard-wired to find meaning in what we see and experience.  But when it comes to someone else—a critic, say—interpreting  a piece of art for me, that is in my stead or in my behalf—I’m with Sontag: I say nix!  (I’m not even terribly sanguine about artists themselves telling me what their art should mean to me!)

Actually, I’ve almost always seen Hopper’s paintings, at least those with people in them, as stills from a playlet or a scene from a play.  I can spin a whole little scenario from them.  (My favorite painting for this exercise, which isn’t in Where We Are, is 1942’s Nighthawks, a scene at night in a corner diner from the perspective of the street outside.  As I pondered in my pre-ROT report on the Hopper show at the National Gallery, it makes “you wonder what might have just happened—or might be about to happen—in that single lighted room on a dark, empty street.”)

A Woman in the Sun depicts a nude woman standing profile in the center of a shadow-shrouded bedroom.  She’s brightly lit, however, by the sun shining through an unseen window out of the frame to the right, creating a long rectangle of yellow light and casting the elongated shadows of her legs behind her.  The bed to her left is unmade, as if she’d just gotten out of it; her high-heeled pumps are sitting haphazardly on the floor just at the edge of the bed.  Another window in the room’s far wall is closed, but the curtains are pulled back as if the woman wasn’t concerned if anyone could see in.  The rolling green hills just visible through the glass suggests that the room’s on an upper floor and that the house is in the country so there’s no one to see her anyway.  The room, with sea-green walls, is sparsely decorated and furnished.  The only piece of furniture is the bed; there are framed pictures on two walls.  Aside from the shoes, there’s no other clothing insight.

So, what’s the woman’s story?  Is this her room, or is she a guest in the house?  A visiting relative?  An old friend?  A paying guest?  Did she sleep naked?  There’s no nightgown or pajamas or slippers.  Was there a lover or a husband just moments before?

Is it morning, afternoon, or evening?  The curtain visible at the right edge of the canvas seems to be billowing a bit, so that window might be open.  That suggests it’s warm out—maybe late spring or summer.  Of course, if it’s down south some place, it could be fall or even winter—we don’t know. 

The woman’s not young—probably early middle-aged.  She’s got long, brown hair, which doesn’t seem mussed from the woman’s having been in bed just moments ago.  Did she brush it just before the picture was made?  There are no toiletries to be seen.  A bathroom down the hall, maybe?  There’s no bathrobe around, though.  Maybe the house is hers and she’s alone and doesn’t have to worry about such things.  Maybe she’s about about to get in the bed, not just getting up from it.

The woman doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get dressed or go anywhere. She’s smoking a cigarette.  Why is she smoking standing up instead of sitting on the bed?  There no ashtray in sight—does she drop her ashes on the green rug? 

New York Interior, though a smaller “scene,” raises many intriguing questions, too.  The woman sitting with her back to us, sewing what looks like a white dress, could tell a fascinating story.  Is she making the dress, or mending it?  Letting it out or taking it in—maybe for someone else?  Is it a hand-me-down?  The room looks well furnished and appointed—it’s not a tenement.  I could go on—Hopper leaves so much out of his paintings—but supplies hints, even if he doesn’t mean to.

In another section of Where We Are, Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930) is on display.  It’s one of the artist’s works with no people in it, a deserted strip of storefronts along a town street.  It’s a stage set!  Are the shops, all empty like the street, closed because it’s early morning on a Sunday (no businesses open on Sundays in 1930!)?  Or is it because it’s 1930—the second year of the Great Depression?  (The painting’s title was apparently attached by someone else, not Hopper—so maybe it isn’t even Sunday.)  There are apartments on the second floor above the shops—but no one’s visible there, either.  The artist’s said that the painting depicts 7th Avenue in New York City, but does it?  It looks like a small town to me.  Sunday Morning’s less intriguing than the populated paintings, but there’s still a lot we can wonder about and imagine.

The exhibit opens with a display outside the entrance to the first gallery, facing museumgoers as they exit the elevators in the seventh floor, of Jacob Lawrence’s War Series, 14 panels that present expressionistic representations of World War II, which Lawrence (1917-2000) saw first hand as a Coast Guardsman.  In the paintings, made between 1946 and 1947, Lawrence showed the war as perceived by the individual, whether soldier or civilian on the home front.  Among the War Series are depictions, in muted earth colors of rust and olive green and brown and black with splashes of white, of Coast Guardsmen reporting for Another Patrol (1946), soldiers Shipping Out (1947) for the combat zone, wounded and injured men Going Home (1947), a father or brother or son receiving The Letter (1946) telling him his loved one died in battle, and finally, Victory (1947), the image of a soldier in full battle gear, his rifle held vertically in front of his, kneeling in prayer or thanks.  The series may be the most moving images in the show. 

One example of what I meant when I complained about shoe-horning an interpretation onto a piece of art that may not have been remotely what the artist was out to do comes from Pittsburgh (1927) by Elsie Driggs (1895-1992).  It’s in “The Strength of Collective Man,” the section on industry, labor, and the working man.  Pittsburgh is a painting of the stacks and tubes of a steel mill, presented as a depiction of 20th-century American industry, the “dark Satanic mills” of William Blake, perhaps a warning of industrial pollution to come.  But Driggs said she was compelled to paint the scene because, “This shouldn’t be beautiful.  But it is.”  So she drew it!  It was a purely aesthetic impulse, not an environmental or political one.  The Where We Are curators are perfectly free to see in Driggs’s Pittsburgh what they want, or what they feel.  But they don’t get to lay their experience of the art work on me.  I see more or less what Driggs saw at the mill—a (perhaps frightening or ominous) beauty, majesty even, in the almost gracefully curved and sentinel-straight steel pipes, stacks, and tubes.  (There’s even a hint of M. C. Escher.)

Where We Are is too chock-full of terrific art to do it justice in a short report.  (Fortunately, the show is open-ended and should be accessible for a while yet, so I can recommend a trip down to Gansevoort Street in Greenwich Village  for you to see it for yourself.)  I do need to make one more stop: Morris Louis’s Tet (1958).  I do this not only because I like Louis’s work—I like it a lot because (and Diana doesn’t understand this) it cheers me up, it makes me happy—but also because Louis (1912-62) is a founding member of the Washington Color School (about which I blogged in The Washington School of Color,” 21 September 2014) and, yes, I am a hometown chauvinist.  (So sue me!)  

Tet (Louis’s titles aren’t his—he didn’t title his canvases before he died at the age of 49; after his death, his wife assigned titles, almost all letters of the Greek or, as in this case, Hebrew alphabets) is one of the artist’s Veil paintings.  (I explain what Louis’s techniques were, including “veiling,” in my post “Morris Louis,” 15 February 2010.)  But I want to make another point here about assigning meaning to works of art.  Tet is in the section covering spirituality and mysticism, “Of Eros and Dust.”  

The Color School movement, however, wasn’t about meaning.  Not at all.  A piece of Color School art was meant to stir the viewer totally by the pleasure received from the colors and shapes.  A Color School painting doesn’t mean anything—not spiritual or mystical or concrete or symbolic.  Now, you can find meaning in it—like you do when you look at clouds—but you cannot tell me I have to find your meaning in the painting, or any meaning at all.  So Tet doesn’t “mean” anything to me—it’s just wonderful colors on a canvas that please me.  (By the way, if you check out my post on Louis, you learn that he didn’t actually “paint” his canvases.  He poured the pigment onto the canvas and let gravity and chance share in the creation of the effect.  It’s hard to make meaning with that technique.)

There wasn’t a lot of critical press on Where We Are.  Calling the exhibit “timely” at this time when we’re debating “what it means to be American,” Elena Martinique of Widewalls observed, “Featuring both icons and the not-yet-known or the forgotten, the exhibition Where We Are brings together the beauty, diversity, difference, and complexity.”  In The Villager, Stephanie Buhmann called Where We Are a “stunning installation.”  

Ben Diamond declared, “Every piece of art in this show is incredible,” in Avenue magazine, but reported that the exhibit is “a bold experiment, one that ignores the dictums of rigid art historians in favor of an approach grounded more in thematic and aesthetic concerns.  Unfortunately, its admittedly excellent parts never combine into a coherent whole.”  As if to echo my complaint about the curatorial interpretation, Diamond asserted, “The thematic groupings in ‘Where We Are’ do the work on display [a] disservice, forcing viewers to interpret art in narrowly particular ways.”  The reviewer cited Frank Stella’s “maxim” that “‘what you see is what you see,’ was expressly created to resist the sort of easy interpretation that the show imposes on it.” 

*  *  *  *
On Wednesday, 7 June, Diana invited me to another Member Night at the Whitney.  My friend and I checked out three exhibits.  One was another show drawn from the museum’s permanent collection called An Incomplete History of Protest, an exhibit of art and artifacts (from 1940 to 2017) inspired by or in support of various political movements (civil rights and anti-lynching, women’s rights, the AIDS crisis, anti-Vietnam war).  As art, it was only mildly interesting; as a look back at history, it covered movements most of which I’ve lived through and didn’t feel compelled to revisit.  (I’m not a devotee of political art, including political theater.  It’s almost always more compelling as politics than as art.)

We also breezed through Mary Corse: A Survey in Light.  She’s an artist of whom I’d never heard (she’s about a year older than I am, born in 1945), and a lot of her work is white-on-white paintings.  (Do any of you know a play called Art by Yasmina Reza, a French playwright of Iranian heritage, that played on Broadway in 1998-99?  Three men in a Paris apartment argue over whether an all-white painting one of them just bought is even art.  It won an Olivier and Molière Award and the 1998 Tony, all for best play.)  A Survey in Light is a small show, but I didn’t find it very interesting.

We spent most of the visit at Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Myths.  The show opened in one of the museum’s fifth-floor galleries on 2 March and closed on 10 June.  Grant Wood covers all of the artist’s career, from his beginnings designing decorative objects, through his early paintings, to his fame generated by American Gothic (1930), and his mature work in murals; the exhibit also includes examples of his book illustrations and covers.

I’m not a fan of Wood’s, but though I knew he did other work, I only knew American Gothic (which is in the show, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago).  After seeing this exhibit, I’m not more taken with the Iowan’s art, but he is an interesting figure.  One thing I learned: he had a sly sense of humor which he occasionally exercised in his paintings.  Daughters of Revolution (1932) is a dig at the DAR’s pretensions and snobbishness disguised as a portrait of three middle-aged Iowan ladies.  (When I saw the canvas from across the gallery, before I even knew what its subject was, I immediately thought of The Music Man—a play set in Iowa, coincidentally—and the song “Pickalittle (Talkalittle)” in which three biddies show disdain for Marion “the Librarian” because “she advocates dirty books . . . Chaucer, Rabelais, Balzac!”)

Wood (1891-1942) began as a decorative artist, though he didn’t accept a distinction between decorative art and fine art.  In the early part of the show, there are household furnishings, including a Tiffany-like glass lampshade, that Wood designed.  His early paintings were decidedly impressionistic, influenced by the European artists he was studying and emulating (Van Antwerp Place, 1922–23).  In 1930, the year he painted American Gothic, Wood decided that he was going to devote himself to developing an indigenous, hard-edged, straightforward American style of art, influenced and inspired by his Midwestern roots and the Iowa landscape in which he grew up and the people he knew.  (His models for American Gothic, for instance, were his sister—a portrait of whom, Portrait of Nan, 1931is in the showand his dentist.)  He often included images of Iowan icons, especially corn, in  his works (especially Corn Cob Chandelier for Iowa Corn Room, 1925, one of his decorative arts creations for the Montrose Hotel in Cedar Rapids.). 

Another example of Woods’s sense of humor is Parson Weems’ Fable (1939), which presents the famous apocryphal tale of  young George Washington confessing to his father that he chopped down the cherry tree.  It’s shown as a stage scene, with Parson Weems, the fable’s originator, pulling back a  curtain to reveal the drama taking place.  Presented as a fiction this way, Woods manages to cast doubt on the  popular story’s veracity while still celebrating the moral lesson it purports to teach.

Woods painted many scenes celebrating the Iowa farm and small-town culture in which he’d grown up (Rural Landscape, c. 1931. for example).  But the farms, rural landscapes, and little towns he painted were not only idealized renditions of the real Iowa of the 1930’s, but they weren’t even the actual Iowa of his childhood, though that’s what he put out that he was painting.  He was recreating images not of the world he remembered as a child, but a world he wanted to remember—but which never actually existed.  In his later work, however, Wood wasn’t above treating some ominous or dark subjects, most starkly exemplified in Death on the Ridge Road, a 1935 oil that depicts a rather expressionistic scene, viewed from above as if he were suspended in the air, of an impending automobile crash as two cars are speeding along a windy two-lane blacktop as a truck is hurtling down the steep road towards them.

07 June 2018

'Our Lady of 121st Street'

In my last play report, I wrote that I liked subscribing to the Signature Theatre’s seasons because it afforded me the opportunity to see plays by authors whose work I either didn’t know or hadn’t seen enough of.  That report was on Dominique Morisseau’s Paradise Blue (posted on Rick On Theater on 2 June), a play by an author whose work I hadn’t seen yet.  This time, I’m catching up with a playwright a couple of whose plays I have seen before, but whose work I don’t yet have a handle on: Stephen Adly Guirgis.  Coincidentally, the play on which I’m reporting here is one of the two I’ve seen previously, Our Lady of 121st Street; I saw the début production after it moved to the commercial venue, the Union Square Theatre, in 2003.  Oddly, I didn’t remember much about the production or, arguably more importantly, my response to it.  (2003 was years before I started writing performance reports, both the e-mail versions I sent my out-of-town friends and my ROT reports, so, alas, I have nothing in writing on that production.)

Pulitzer Prize-winner Guirgis (for 2015’s Between Riverside and Crazy), as readers of my reports will know, was the 2017-18 Residency 1 playwright at the Signature Theatre Company (succeeded by Morisseau); Our Lady is his second play (following the revival of 2000’s Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train last fall) of the three he’ll have at the company during his year-long term.  (Guirgis’s third residency play, a new one, was supposed to be produced at STC during the 2018-19 season, but the script isn’t ready so the unannounced new play will be presented in a later season.  I hope it will  be because I’d like to see where he’s gotten to since 2000 and 2002.  For a brief bio of Guirgis, see my report on Jesus, posted on 6 November 2017.) 

Our Lady of 121st Street had its world première Off-Off-Broadway from 20 August to 12 October 2002 at Center Stage, NY (on W. 21st Street in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood).  Produced by the LAByrinth Theater Company (of which Guirgis was a member), it was directed by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the company’s founder and artistic director.  It moved to Off-Broadway and reopened at the Union Square (with the same director and cast) on 6 March 2003 (after starting preview performances on 18 February); the production ran until 27 July, collecting a passel of 2003 award nominations, including the Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Director, Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Play and Outstanding Director of a Play, and the Outer Critics Circle’s John Gassner Playwriting Award (unfortunately, taking home none).

Revivals and regional premières of Our Lady have been staged all over the United States, including Chicago (Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 5 February-28 March 2004; Eclipse Theatre Company, 14 July-21 August 2016), Washington, D.C. (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 8 December 2004-5 January 2005), San Francisco (San Francisco Playhouse, 4 March-22 April 2006), Los Angeles (Matrix Theatre, c. 23 November-30 December 2006; Burbank – Victory Bare Bones Ensemble/Zubber Dust Players, 1 May-7 June 2015), Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh Playhouse, 4-13 December 2015), Miami (Ground Up & Rising, 2-11 September 2016).  (The play is also very popular in school theaters, including, despite the language, high schools.)  Signature’s two-hour, one-intermission revival, the first in New York City since the première, began previews in the Pershing Square Signature Center’s Irene Diamond Stage, the company’s 294-seat proscenium house, on 1 May 2018 and opened on 20 May.  My theater partner, Diana, and I caught the 7:30 performance on Friday evening, 25 May; the production is currently scheduled to close on 17 June (after an extension from the original 10 June closing).

Since there’s almost no discernable plot, synopsizing Our Lady is a hard task.  Essentially, a diverse gathering of characters (sort of Grand Hotel-ish), each struggling with his or her own problem(s), comes together at the Ortiz Funeral Home in their old (East) Harlem neighborhood to mourn the death of Sister Rose, a severe but dedicated nun who’d been the teacher of many of them.  (She wasn’t averse to taking a “shillelagh” to her charges who “loved her, even when we didn’t.”)  Sister Rose, known to “any kid who grew up ’round a hundred twenty-first” as “Our Lady,” drank herself to death.  On the day of her wake, her former students, ranging from 30-somethings up to 50-somethings (plus a few hangers-on), discover that her body’s been stolen from her casket.  One ex-pupil, Balthazar (Joey Auzenne), who has his own issues, is an NYPD detective and is investigating the bizarre theft.  This extends the funeral schedule and all the . . . ummm, mourners (I can’t think of a more precise word—though there’s little mourning in evidence, just some recollecting), who’ve returned from all over the country, stick around longer than they’d planned. 

Our Lady’s apparently—according to the theater’s promos and several reviewers—about what happened when these mismatched folks, with only two things in common—the nabe and Sister Rose—come together after several decades and their old feelings, beefs, and attitudes resurface.  I’m not convinced that that’s actually what Guirgis had in mind when he composed (or assembled) Our Lady, but in any case, nothing is resolved from all the sound and fury (not even the theft of Sister Rose’s body, despite a gruesome revelation at the end of the play).  The characters don’t actually develop over the course of the play, but remain the same throughout the play, just more intense (like TV characters in sitcoms over a season or more).  The play doesn’t actually end . . . it just stops.  (I fall back on my unsubstantiated impression that the playwright sampled chance exchanges and sundry characters and then stitched them together with the Sister Rose contrivance.)

In addition to Balthazar, Sister Rose’s former students who’ve gathered for her funeral are Rooftop (Hill Harper), a popular Los Angeles DJ who got his nickname for his habit of taking “every Jordache bubble-butt from Ninety-sixth on up” onto the tenement roofs for sex, looking to reconcile with his ex-wife, Inez (Quincy Tyler Bernstine); Flip (Jimonn Cole), a closeted gay lawyer who arrives from Wisconsin with his needy lover, Gail (Kevin Isola), an amateur actor in denial about his effeminacy and who finds Flip’s return to his hetero high school persona frightening; fiery, foul-mouthed, eternally furious “Nasty” Norca (Paola Làzaro), with a wicked wit, who slept with her best friend Inez’s husband, Rooftop, but still expects Inez to forgive her; and Edwin (Erick Betancourt, who played one of the prison guards in Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train at STC), a local building super and caretaker for his brain-damaged brother, Pinky (Maki Borden), who was injured as a child when Edwin threw a brick out a window, hitting his little brother on the head.  There’s also an older former student, Victor (John Procaccino), who makes his appearance in the very first scene without his pants . . . because they were stolen while he slept at the funeral parlor when Sister Rose’s body was taken.  (There’s a bit of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in this turn—a man in underpants standing before a coffin.)  In addition to Gail, who wasn’t one of Sister Rose’s students, are Father Lux (John Doman), a wheelchair-bound priest at the church to which the school was attached who lost his legs in the Korean War and who may be losing his faith; Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba), the nun’s allergy-plagued niece; and Marcia’s friend Sonia (Dierdre Friel) from Connecticut, who’s a little lost in this world and whom Norca insists is a hated former schoolmate—Norca even assaults her—though Sonia was never one of Sister Rose’s pupils.

The characters are mixed in age from the mid-70’s (Father Lux) to early 50’s (Victor) to mid-40’s (Rooftop) to mid- and late 30’s, as well as race and ethnicity (Hispanic, black, white).  The time is unstated in the program (one published script puts it as “The present”), but there are indications in the script as well as Rashad’s staging that suggest the early 2000’s, when Our Lady of 121st Street was written (mentions of “if Rudy [Giuiani] were still in office”—his term expired in January 2002; New York City newscaster Bill Buetel, who retired in 2003 and died in 2006; and actor Gail getting work on Law & Order, which was cancelled in 2010; the characters carry “flip” cell phones, which were outdated by the mid-2000’s); furthermore, if the play were set in 2018, Father Lux would be 10 years too young to have fought in Korea. 

Like Neil Patel’s set for Signature’s Paradise Blue, Walt Spangler designed an acting environment for the Diamond stage that incorporates multiple areas: sections of the Ortiz Funeral Home (up center) towering over which is a huge sign with the business’s name, the neighborhood church (predominantly the confessional, down right), and a local bar and grill (down left and center) while accommodating incidental locations as the script requires.  (This design choice leave a large empty chasm in the center of the bar and grill set that’s a large void when not in use for a street scene or some other action.)  As a result, Rashad’s staging flows among the many short scenes much like a movie or TV show.  Given the discontinuous structure of the script, this decision is necessary—though not sufficient.

Our Lady isn’t a rookie play, coming two years after Jesus, a much better script, but Guirgis displays a shaky grasp of dramatic structure here.  The play has characters and scenes that are clearly juicy for actors—remember that Guirgis trained and started as an actor (he regards himself as “primarily an actor who writes,” says Leslie (Hoban) Blake in an interview with the playwright) and LAByrinth is basically an actors’ theater (Hoffman was also first and actor).  While Guirgis’s writing in Our Lady still has some (street-) poetic notes (albeit with a lot of F-bombs!), that’s not enough to compensate for the fragmented structure.  It’s probably supposed to have been a string-of-beads structure, but the string—the characters’ relationship to Sister Rose, her death, and the theft of her corpse—hardly exists; it’s a phony construct that means nothing and leads nowhere—an excuse for this unintegrated group to come together. 

Our Lady of 121st Street turns out to be a collection of disjointed scenes about a disparate group of characters who are near-clichés—and the script never coheres.  You could label it a portrait of a community, or a slice of life, or a snapshot of a time and place in a corner of New York City, but though I call it a “play”—because actors stand on a stage and speak lines before a live audience (and I don’t have another adequate word)—in the end it’s not a drama.  I said to Diana that it felt to me as if Guirgis had eavesdropped on snippets of random conversations on the streets and bars in Harlem and transcribed them, then decided to assemble them into a “play” without ever finding a common theme.  The separate scenes, many of the them two- or three-handers, are terrifically actable serio-comic pieces, wonderful material for scene-study classes, but they don’t add up to a satisfying evening of theater.  

The acting is fine, with the caveat that no one breaks away from the stereotypes Guirgis contrived—and they probably couldn’t have, given the script.  Standouts include Doman’s Father Lux, combining world-weariness, sympathetic toughness, and impatience, especially for Rooftop’s narcissism (his long peroration in the confessional kept reminding me of the joke that ends with the priest scolding, “You’re not confessing.  You’re bragging!”); Làzaro’s Norca, with her mercurial volatility and sharp tongue; Borden’s Pinky, a simple man-child in constant need of reassurance and acceptance, and Betancourt’s Edwin, expressing his love and concern for Pinky through gruffness and apprehension.  The whole cast, though, acquits themselves well, even if they never come together as a true ensemble but remain a gathering of quirky individuals.  I’m not sure director Rashad, an award-winning actress who makes her New York directorial début here, could have melded them into a whole any more than she managed.

Based on 29 published notices, Show-Score, the review-survey website, gave Our Lady of 121st Street an average score of 79, with 83% of the reviews being positive, 14% mixed, and 3% negative.  The site included five top scores of 90 (Hollywood Reporter, Gotham Playgoer, Daily Beast, and two notices on New York Stage Review), backed up by an 89 for Front Row Center and nine 85’s (including Theatre’s Leiter Side, CurtainUp, and Talkin’ Broadway); Show-Score’s lowest score went to the website Reclining Standards with a score of 40.  My round-up will cover 17 published notices.

In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout declared that Rashad’s directing, “if uneven, [is] mostly pleasing,” and said the same of the play itself, which  “comes through with all sails billowing.  It isn’t perfect, but it’s smart and touching—and fun.”  In fact, whether despite or because of Guirgis’s liberal use of expletives (that Teachout can’t quote in the Journal), the reviewer states, “‘Our Lady’ is one of the funniest plays I’ve ever seen—or, rather, one of the funniest acts, since things get serious after intermission.”  He added, however, “The problem with “Our Lady of 121st Street” . . . is that it’s essentially plotless.”  As Teachout knows, “No matter how funny you are, it’s tough to keep a plotless comedy in motion—especially a serious one.”  The Journalist felt, though, “It’s a tribute to [Guirgis’s] inborn talent that he manages to make ‘Our Lady’ work in spite of its aimlessness,” and continued that “it’s no less a tribute to this well-cast revival that everybody in it . . . makes a sharp and strongly flavored impression.” 

Max McGuinness of the U.S. edition of the Financial Times observed, “It’s the oldest trick in the theatrical book.  Kill someone off.  Then round up family and friends for the funeral, where they can settle scores and rekindle old flames.”  Then the FT reviewer continued, given the circumstances of Our Lady of 121st Street, “It’s as if Guirgis is sending up the emptiness of his own plot device.”  He reported, “The loosely connected scenes . . . mostly serve as vehicles for Guirgis’s bawdy, rapid-fire repartee and colourfully sketched characters.”  Despite Rashad’s staging, which “keeps the comic tempo humming along nicely, . . . Guirgis’s text has a narrow, overly boisterous emotional range.”  Barbara Schuler’s “Bottom Line” in Long Island’s Newsday was “An entertaining study of some crazy, mixed-up characters” in a play made up of “brief scenes that director Phylicia Rashad keeps moving right along.”  Schuler declared, “This is a character study, pure and simple” and “offers no resolution whatsoever.” 

The New York Times’ Jesse Green posited that “drama is about people behaving badly” and there are a lot of “whiners and wastrels to be found on New York stages . . . .  But undoubtedly the most enjoyable screw-ups you can catch right now are those hanging around the Ortiz Funeral Parlor in ‘Our Lady of 121st Street.’”  He called the STC production “a raucous, rough-edged revival” and asserted that it’s been a long time since “dialogue so laced with profanity [has] been so gorgeously employed to define and distinguish character” by “a dirty dozen of unpublishable grievance.”  The Timesman observed that “even without curses the back-and-forth is biting.”  He assured us, though, “Cutting they may be, but Mr. Guirgis’s characters are never merely indulging in insult comedy.  They are groping toward the core of conflicts that are hard to put into words otherwise.”  In Our Lady, Green explained, the “scenes . . . don’t drive forward so much as accumulate. . . .  This is not the stuff of pointed drama; Balthazar the detective doesn’t even solve the crime.”  The Times reviewer continued, “But these aren’t failings so much as expressions of Mr. Guirgis’s overall despair that humans, however well intentioned, are not equipped to repair the damage they cause.  Really, they are only equipped to keep causing it.” 

Under Rashad’s direction, reported the review-writer, “the cast offers a very rich, primary-color rendition of a complicated group of people.”  But Green found that “good as they are, they too often seem to cut corners rather than hug the curves of the play’s twisty contours” and he blames Rashad’s staging, “blurry and amorphous,” for that.  “It is often difficult to tell where the action is taking place, and even where to look. . . .  And when scenes end, they do so awkwardly or indifferently, with an abrupt change of lights (by Keith Parham) or music (by Robert Kaplowitz), as if under-rehearsed.”  Saying that “no contemporary playwright is better at the long game of setting up jokes, and making them pay unexpected philosophical dividends” than Guirgis, Green went on:

I hesitate to say that the play, too, might have benefited by some rethinking. . . . .  And especially in the second act you can feel Mr. Guirgis’s dramaturgical anxiety mount as he tries to juggle too many stories.  Some he just drops, or tosses offstage when he hopes no one is looking.  The ending is a sheepish shrug.

Sara Holdren, in New York magazine/Vulture, labeled Our Lady of 121st Street “a play full of combustible energy that would benefit from compression and claustrophobia.”  “The production,” Holdren found, “is a curious creature:  It’s powered by a number of individually gutsy performances, yet, taken as a whole, its punch doesn’t quite hit the gut.”  She explained:

It rails and rants and gets characteristically raw—Guirgis is a playwright of the every-other-word-is-fuckin’ school—but in the Diamond, under the actor-friendly direction of Phylicia Rashad, its energy can feel diffuse and its trappings noticeably un-gritty.  It doesn’t need an intermission, but it’s got one.  All in all, it often feels weirdly comfortable, like a downtown street cat that’s moved uptown and indoors, where its claws get regularly clipped and there are always Friskies in the bowl.

In her direction, “Rashad seems most at home working with Our Lady’s cast in these individual moments of outsized emotion, connection, and indignation,” Holdren found, “but the arrangement of scenes in space feels static and tableau-ish, and the transitions—conventional music-plays-while-the-lights-go-dark affairs—fail to add meaning or movement.”  The reviewer blamed Spangler’s set, “a bit like a series of dioramas.”  As a result, “the characters of this Our Lady of 121st Street—all scrappy, surly fighters—have too much breathing room.”  Holdren found, “Some of their anger, which should bounce off the walls and smack us in the face, floats off into the air, or gets absorbed in the carpet that covers the stage.”  She concluded that “the vigor and power of this Our Lady belong to its actors, while the play itself feels a little defanged.”

The reviewer for the New Yorker’s “Goings On About Town” section warned us that “tight storytelling is not the point here, and neither is Sister Rose.”  The unnamed review-writer pointed out, “Plot strands are brought up and abandoned; people come and go for no good reason.”  Still, “the play does have memorable characters spouting memorable dialogue,” acknowledged the New Yorker writer.  “Few contemporary playwrights have Guirgis’s sense of rhythm or his flair for telling, grounding details.”  The reviewer’s estimation of the STC revival was: “The Signature’s cast is firing on all cylinders under Phylicia Rashad’s direction, even as it battles a sprawling set, by Walt Spangler, that creates problems rather than solving them.”

Frank Scheck of the Hollywood Reporter wrote in his “Bottom Line”: “Superb performers do full justice to blisteringly funny material” and recommended, “Acting students would be well advised to head immediately to the off-Broadway revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Our Lady of 121st Street.”  The play’s “procession of darkly hilarious scenes providing a ready-made series of indelible audition pieces for male and female performers of varying ethnicities.”  In his high-scoring review (one of Show-Score’s 90’s), Scheck effused, “This superb production, staged to perfection by Phylicia Rashad, provides a master class in how it’s done.”  The HR reviewer warned, “To say that not much really happens in the course of the play is an understatement,” adding that the ostensible missing-corpse plot “proves merely a springboard for the characters to unveil their hopes, fears and disappointments in a series of confrontations that are frequently as moving as they are riotously funny.”  Rashad, reported Scheck, “delivers an assured staging that fully allows the actors to flower in their roles while resisting the temptation of going over the top” and “all the performances feel fully lived in.”  “While it might benefit from being presented in one of the theaterplex’s smaller spaces,” observed Scheck, the STC revival of Our Lady “makes a strong case for the playwright as one of our most essential theatrical voices.”

“I’ve been struck by how often Stephen Adly Guirgis . . . is praised for the authenticity of his street vernacular,” remarked David Fox on Reclining Standards, which scored Show-Score’s sole 40 (as you’ll soon see why).  “Maybe, but since the comment most often comes from critics (which I mean here to be taken as code for mostly affluent and white), how exactly would they know?”  Fox continued his argument:

I freely admit I’m not in a position to judge its accuracy, but what I hear is dialogue that feels highly constructed, with flashes of cleverness and wit, heavily laced with Guirgis’s signature barrage of expletives. It doesn’t suggest “authenticity” to me so much as the sassy cousin of funny TV writing, deliberately made racy for shock value.

Fox’s objection to Guirgis’s playwriting is that “although he’s an exceptionally good craftsman—adroit at telling a story and keeping a lot of (forgive the expression) balls in the air—his plays only intermittently go deeper than their surface shock tactics.”  As for Rashad’s “flashy, shallow” revival of Our Lady of 121st Street at Signature, asserted Fox, “You certainly won’t find much depth” there, “though Guirgis doesn’t help.”  The RS reviewer felt that “from the get-go, Guirgis signals that seriousness will be consistently undercut with humor,” and the production becomes “a rollercoaster ride, veering from comedy to tragedy”—except, Fox lamented, “Rashad’s direction inserts an unwelcome sense of jazz-hands flash into the short scene-lets, which here look more like the kind of miniatures specifically designed for acting showcases than part of a long, thoughtful story arc.”  He also complained of “the awkwardly wide performance space of the Irene Diamond Stage, which further compounds the artificiality.”  His ultimate analysis was that “a production meant to celebrate Stephen Adly Guirgis’s importance and influence paradoxically reveals his faults.  As seen at Signature, Our Lady of 121st Street is perilously close to TV comedy, with the addition of a lot of dirty words.”

Jonathan Mandell of New York Theater found STC’s revival of Our Lady of 121st Street “a production smartly cast and competently directed by Phylicia Rashad.  The script,” he continued, “exhibits some of Guirgis’s familiar street energy, full of harsh, foul-mouthed humor; it even touches on some of his usual themes (living with sorrow and regret; betrayal; spiritual redemption.)”  Mandell reported, however, that “‘Our Lady of 121st Street’ is less substantive and less satisfying than many of his other plays.”  The play’s opening scene “promises . . . a farcical mystery,” then “quickly swerves in a different direction—or, more precisely, loses direction.”  Our Lady unfolds “mostly in two-character or three-character scenes that amount to little more than darkly comic vignettes.”  Each of the play’s characters (as I noted earlier) has a roster of serious personal problems, “but these are largely undeveloped,” explained Mandell, “told in throwaway lines.  The comedy dominates. (I’m not sure if any director could bring the poignancy more to the fore; this one doesn’t.)”  The NYTheater reviewer found, “Some of the scenes, though, are not so much funny as just odd, or incomplete,” while “[o]thers get by on the force of the acting.” 

Howard Miller labeled the Signature production of Our Lady a “snappy revival” of a “scary-comic” play on Talkin’ Broadway.  “Don’t go looking for much of a plot,” warned Miller.  “Our Lady of 121st Street is a character-driven play.”  The TB review-writer reported that “the entire first act is made up of short scenes that serve as introductions,” continuing, “Every encounter seems like the ultimate non sequitur, most of them hugely funny though seemingly unrelated to the others, until the jigsaw puzzle starts to assemble itself piece by piece in Act II.”  Guirgis, “the excellent cast,” and director Rashad “deliver the goods.”  Miller concluded, “The permeating dark humor of Our Lady of 121st Street masks a great deal of pain, and Stephen Adly Guirgis uses it smartly to turn over a lot of rocks.”

On Broadway World, Michael Dale dubbed the STC revival a “crackling production” which “hits the ground running” in “a series of touching and funny interactions between everyday souls getting through their own personal struggles.”  In his final assessment of the performance, Dale asserted, “Skillfully gliding from sharp, scatologically-expressed humor to realistic pathos, OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET is a terrific collection of genuine New York stories.”  Sandi Durell of Theater Pizzazz characterized Our Lady as an “all too funny, poignant and earthy story about the down-trodden.”  Durell found “the characters are rich and ripe” and Rashad “takes the reins and willingly lets go allowing her cast to fly untethered.”  In her final word on the production, the TP reviewer advised, “Be prepared for the unexpected and enjoy the ride! Guirgis is a genius when it comes to dark irreverent comedy.” 

On TheaterScene,net, Joel Benjamin recalled the 2003 première of Our Lady of 121st Street “as a dark tale of troubled characters, not without an edge of humor.  I didn’t come away laughing, but trembling partly in anger and partly in disgust.”  However, he found that the STC revival “magically now comes across as an addled, profane sitcom.”  Benjamin affirmed:

It’s entertaining and at times moving, but the real magic is that the very same words can be tended by a solid director—this one obviously experienced in sitcoms [readers will recall that Rashad played Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show for eight years]—and refresh a theatrical experience so completely.  Rashad has shown that scathing can be scathingly funny.  This time I left laughing.

“Scenes switch quickly” with a “parade of characters.”  All the characters have “neuroses and social issues, few of which are dealt with when the play ends on an abrupt, breathless note.”  Benjamin felt. “It’s Guirgis’ . . . talent to make these different elements coalesce into a wonderfully rich crazy quilt of humanity on the lowdown.” 

Elyse Sommer emphasized on CurtainUp that the missing-corpse scenario is “a device for initiating a series of verbal pas-de-deux or trois character-defining scenes for a big cast of terrific actors.”  Guirgis, she affirmed, “did weave all those episodic interchanges into a memorably hilarious very dark human comedy.”  Rashad has “assembled an excellent top to bottom ensemble and competently guided them.” 

On Theatre’s Leiter Side, Samuel L. Leiter labeled Our Lady of 121st Street a “black comedy” that’s “essentially plotless” with a first act that is “hilariously potty-mouthed.”  Leiter described Our Lady as, “rather than a conventional play, an episodic, dramatic concert in which the songs have been converted to acting arias, including solos, duets, and choral numbers.”  The play’s structure is a “series of scenes . . . with rippling, sinewy dialogue that commands attention and ignites raucous laughter, introducing us to a succession of pulsing livewires whose connections with others create fiery sparks.”  The TLS blogger confirmed that “Our Lady has loose ends [and] several vaguely drawn characters,” but “[d]espite the play’s structural problems, its characters and language are so electric that, even when the laughs subside in the more serious Act II, you remain invested in these damaged souls.”  Leiter had problems with the set design, which “is too spread out on the wide stage, dissipating focus, and creating problems that Rashad’s directing doesn’t fully resolve.”  Still, the blogger concluded that “even with its flaws, Our Lady, of the nearly 20 plays I’ve reviewed since the 2018-2019 began, is (by a hair) the best.”

On New York Theater Guide, Donna Herman observed, Our Lady “is missing several elements that are usually vital to a play—like a plot and an ending. But the biggest thing it’s missing is . . . more.”  She explained, “When the lights came down on the revival of Our Lady of 121st Street currently playing at the Signature Theatre, I didn’t want it to end.”  In a unique comparison, Herman offered, “What Our Lady of 121st Street really resembles is an uptown version of Seinfeld.  Not a lot really happens in terms of plot.”  Furthermore,

Mostly everyone sits around talking to each other.  But the characters get under your skin, and their quiet and not-so-quiet struggles to stay afloat in a hostile world, and their ability to see the humor in the darkness, is like water in the desert. You thirst for more

In the end, the NYTG reviewer declared, “Hats off to a superb cast, insightful and powerful script by Stephen Adly Guirgis and deft direction by Phylicia Rashad.”

Hayley Levitt of TheaterMania proclaimed that director Rashad has built “a vibrant yet subtle energetic network within her brilliant ensemble of actors” for STC’s Our Lady of 121st Street.  In contrast to most reviewers, Levitt found that “Walt Spangler’s sectioned scenic design perfectly accommodates the play’s vignettes, which begin as their own mini-plays but bleed together into the single space of the funeral home waiting room by Act 2.”  The set “also gives a semblance of structure to an amorphous narrative where conflicts are left unsettled, crimes are left unsolved, and goals are left extremely undefined.”  The TM review-writer felt that “if after Our Lady of 121st Street we feel somewhat unsatisfied, that means we’re hungry for more.”