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Boston by Suzanne Bixby

Our Lady of 121st Street

Our Lady of 121st Street
Ricardo Engermann and Robert D. Murphy
Stephen Adly Guirgis deserves a prize for writing a play in this millennium with twelve characters played by twelve actors. And director Paul Melone is to be commended as well for the impeccable casting of the delightful dozen on stage now through March 27th in the SpeakEasy Stage Company's Boston premier of Our Lady of 121st Street.

We can also be grateful that actor-turned-playwright Guirgis (pronounced GEAR-giss) offers us the achingly funny flip side of this angry, confused, disappointed, disenfranchised bunch of Upper, Upper Westsiders gathered for a de-facto reunion at the wake of their beloved teacher Sister Rose.

Set designer Eric Levenson's perfectly replicated funeral parlor is the tip-off. I found myself laughing out loud as I discovered the whisper soft industrial strength beige carpet under my feet, the guest book on the lectern at the head of the aisle and the strategically placed boxes of Kleenex on the tables flanking the casket.

Written as a series of mostly well-crafted two and three person scenes, Our Lady ... reveals Guirgis to be the master of the 10-minute play, if not yet the commander of the whole. With the expected unevenness of a 10-minute play festival, it's sometimes a relief that we don't spend a great deal of time with any one character before moving on to the next.

Guirgis is at his best when he hones in on the kids from the neighborhood, now in their mid to late thirties, who use the "reunion" as an excuse to give themselves a report card on life so far. The most successful of the scenes suggest enough material for at least a trilogy of plays on the theme of guilt alone.

Attention doesn't wander when Inez (Jacqui Parker) upbraids Norca (Elaine Theodore) for sleeping with her husband or when Edwin (Luis Negron) must instruct his younger brother Pinky (Paulo Branco) on the procurement of a box of Ding Dongs and a quart of milk. And Rooftop (Vincent E. Siders) riffing with Father Lux (Ray McDavitt) in the confessional is riveting once you get the hang of the language.

Unfortunately for Melone, the disappearance of the body in question places the funeral parlor off limits so much of the action occurs on the peripheries with not enough use of the central playing space. And, unfortunately for everybody, when the action finally returns to the visitation room, the play fizzles out.

No surprise that the end of the play is weaker than the beginning given the well-publicized accounts of Guirgis' delivery of the second act to director Philip Seymour Hoffman only days before the first preview. Despite points off for turning it in late, he deserves an "A" for effort anyway. In fact, he deserves a lot of high marks for being a keen observer, having a great ear for the music of everyday language and providing introspection without an overload of self-pity or self-loathing.

Let us hope that his new commissions are as productive as his collaborative efforts at LAByrinth Theater have been. It's always nice to discover a writer who "plays nicely with others" and creates great opportunities for large groups of artists to do the same elsewhere.

Our Lady of 121st Street now through March 27th presented by SpeakEasy Stage Co. (Paul Daigneault, Producing Artistic Director) at the BCA Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont St. in Boston's South End. Performances are Wednesdays & Thursdays at 7:30pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 4pm & 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Tickets are priced at $25.00 - $35.00 depending on the performance with a $5 discount for students and seniors. Student Rush is $15, one hour before curtain, subject to availability. The BCA box office phone is 617-426-2787. For more information about SpeakEasy Stage company and to order tickets online visit the website at: www.speakeasystage.com.


Photo: Craig Bailey/CBE Photo


Be sure to check the current schedule for theatre in the Boston area.



- Suzanne Bixby



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