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.” 

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