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Our Lady of 121st Street

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Our Lady of 121st Street starts by examining what happens when two institutional forces capable of greatly shaping their participants' lives - religion and education - collide in the a neighborhood as diverse as Harlem and then advances twenty years or so. Will the people retain the lessons they've learned, or will they fall by the wayside?

Stephen Adly Guirgis's play - which opened Off-Off-Broadway to considerable acclaim last year and is now reopening at the Union Square Theatre - is an intriguing attempt to answer that question. All of its characters, even the lady of the title (Sister Rose Marie, the alcoholic religious disciplinarian who is dead before the play starts) are flawed people, struggling against the tide of their lives, sometimes succeeding - and yes, sometimes failing - in doing the right thing.

Most of the characters have arrived at the Ortiz Funeral Home to pay their last respects to Sister Rose, only to discover that her body has been stolen, and their actions are frequently in response to the difficult situation. Emotions are running high, tensions at the breaking point, and people are trying to deal with their feelings for Sister Rose - as well as each other - as best they can. (And in some respects, that's even more difficult than it sounds.)

The idea is rich with dramatic possibilities, a number of which Guirgis realizes in the heavily character-driven script. The effects of alcoholism, obligation, abuse, and forgiveness are all tackled with ease, and all seem germane to the proceedings. The religious background of the story (aided greatly by Narelle Sissons's multi-functional funeral home set) also informs the action; while it allows for a couple of clever scenes set in a confessional (accomplished with the help of James Vermeulen's lights), it gives an overwhelming sense of something - or someone - binding the characters together throughout.

Even so, something about this production of Our Lady of 121st Street fails to pack the overwhelming dramatic wallop the setup suggests. The play is well constructed and is always entertaining - the first act is basically hilarious - and Philip Seymour Hoffman's direction is pointed and well-paced. But a certain hollow quantity pervades the proceedings, imbuing even the best moments with a sense that the actors aren't completely at home in the Union Square yet. (It's considerably larger than the play's previous home.)

Time alone may sufficiently address that issue, with the actors achieving the proper size for their performances as they continue the run, though most of the characterizations are sharply honed as it is. Some of the highlights include Elizabeth Canavan as the hilariously bipolar asthmatic Marcia; David Zayas as the working-class Edwin and Al Roffe as the slow brother for whom he feels intensely responsible; Flip (Russell G. Jones) and his flamboyantly gay actor boyfriend Gail (Scott Hudson); and Felix Solis as the tormented, and frequently drunk, policeman investigating Sister Roses's disappearance.

But when even one of the smallest roles (Melissa Feldman in a brilliant deadpan turn as the queen of mistaken identity) is expertly performed, it's hard to find issue with most of the casting. The company just needs to make their characters seem at home in the Union Square Theatre, and that may take some doing.

Luckily, a significant portion of the work has already been done, and done well. The play is there, the direction is there, the characters are there, and they all work together onstage, just not always in the house itself. When everything finally comes together in the new space, Our Lady of 121st Street will likely sizzle; it already has the enrgy, it just needs to be released.

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LAByrinth Theater Company
Our Lady of 121st Street
Running Time: 2 hours with one 15-minute intermission
Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street
Tickets online: Ticketmaster