Stephen Adly Guirgis, one of the newest voices in American theater, has been called "immensely gifted," "startlingly fresh" and "the poet laureate of the angry." Bruce Weber of The New York Times even went so far as to say Guirgis "may be the best playwright in America under 40." After seeing his Our Lady of 121st Street explode across the Alley Theatre's Neuhaus stage, it's easy to understand what the hoopla is all about. Guirgis is a master of the sort of black magic that comes along all too rarely in the theater: He has conjured a world full of heartbreaking characters and low-down lyrical language that blazes so hot and wild it threatens to scorch your soul -- that is, if you don't die laughing first.
From the opening line, we know life ain't easy for the folks on 121st Street. "What kinda fuckin' world is this?!" wails a man named Victor (played by a fiery James Belcher), who stands on the stage wearing only a shirt and his underwear. He's at the Ortiz Funeral Home, where his dead friend Sister Rose was supposed to have her services. But that was before someone stole her corpse -- and Victor's pants -- right out of the viewing room. Victor's rant against the "godless jungle" of a world that would allow such a thing to happen is only the beginning of a long, furious night of impassioned screeds against injustices that contort the human spirit beyond redemption.
The story unfolds during the chaotic reunion of Sister Rose's family, friends and ex-students, who have all crawled out of their respective dark holes of despair to pay their respects. These characters turn out to be some of the most vibrant and volatile ever to walk across a stage, especially as played by the ensemble of actors at the Alley, who are electric under James Black's passionate, muscular direction.
Our Lady of 121st Street
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue
Through April 18; 713-228-8421. $40-$45
Alex Morris is the best he's been in years as the unforgettable Rooftop, a "lyin', cheatin', stealin' and humpin'" kind of guy who comes back to Harlem from Los Angeles to pay his respects to Sister Rose. While he's waiting for the cops to find her body, he goes to confession. The scene between Rooftop and Father Lux (Charles Krohn) is rich with paradox. Wearing a shiny blue suit, the long-limbed Rooftop sits in the confessional telling his dirty secrets and smoking a joint, and then asks, "Is there any hope for me?" The worn-out priest sighs and advises him to ask God, or a therapist, or the Jesuits because "They're smart."
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Rooftop's biggest regret seems to be the fact that he lost his first love, Inez (Alice Gatling), who struts into the story wearing a red silk dress and a chip the size of California on her shoulder. Though she kicked slick-talking Rooftop out of her life years ago, Inez has never forgiven the womanizer for his indiscretions. As the bitterest woman in Harlem, Gatling can't help but walk off with the show every time her character speaks. And when the two finally meet up at 5 a.m. in the funeral home, after 15 years of regrets, the venom spills out. "You took my secret garden and dropped a fuckin' atomic bomb on it," she barks across the stage, "and now it's just scorched earth and ashes."
But these are only two of the angry inhabitants of this world. The rest are played by an extraordinary ensemble as the denizens of 121st Street. Sexy Pablo Bracho plays the tragically cynical detective Balthazar, who's trying to figure out what happened to the body, even as he remembers his own painful brush with death. Luis Galindo is breathtaking as Edwin, an everyman who "accidentally" threw a brick at his brother's head when they were kids and now must care for him for the rest of his life. Patricia Duran plays the damaged Norca, who rails against anyone who gets too close. Even the dead Sister Rose gets some of Norca's vitriol when she screams that she isn't grieving: "Sister Rose could lick my ass, all I care."
The visitors to Harlem include Shelley Calene-Black as the neurotic Marcia, Sister Rose's uptight niece. She has the mother of all asthmatic fits when she figures out that someone's been smoking in the funeral home waiting room. Michelle Edwards is a scream in the role of Sonia, the suburban friend who accompanies Marcia on the trip to Harlem. Sonia's patient reasonableness looks strangely ridiculous in this world filled with the profoundly pissed off. And Philip Lehl makes a wonderful Gail, a sorry little fellow who's "married" to Adrian Porter's Flip, a closeted gay man who won't come out to his Harlem cronies and hasn't been home in years.
But it's Guirgis's haunting and funny script that makes the characters sing with the rich poison of life. He's filled the stage with incendiary dialogue that's unforgettably raw and real. This world will burn in the imagination long after the actors have taken their bows.