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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Our Lady of 121st Street is a Realistic and Arresting Drama with a Great Cast of Actors

Also see Richard's reviews of 4 Adverbs and
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Our Lady of 121st Street
Gabe Marin and Joe Madero
SF Playhouse is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis's fascinating drama of human nature, Our Lady of 121st Street. This provocative play from one of the hottest new playwrights in New York started in a 75-seat Off-Off-Broadway theater to great acclaim. Due to popular demand, the drama that was directed by Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman was moved to the 499-seat Union Square Theatre where it played to sold out audiences. The play was also produced through the Steppenwolf Theatre last year, and there was a reading in Los Angeles with Laurence Fishburne playing Rooftop, a central character in this play about the human psyche.

Our Lady of 121st Street features a group of very explicit men and women who had been under the influence of the now-deceased, stern but devoted Sister Rose Marie at a Catholic school in Harlem. They have come to the Ortiz Funeral Home to pay their last respects; however, as the audience learns at the beginning through Vic (Joe Madero), the body is missing from the casket. He stands in front of the casket without any pants (someone has stolen his pants and wallet on his way to the funeral home) and says "What kinda f---- world is this?" (that someone would steal a body of a Catholic nun). This is spoken to New York detective Balthazar (Gabe Marin), one of the late nun's former students who is trying to find out who did this dastardly deed.

Sister Rose's wake has now been indefinitely postponed and other characters now must anxiously pass the time. They reflect on their emotional problems and those of other characters who have in some way been influenced by the deceased nun. Rooftop (Hansford Prince) was a Harlem kid who has made good in Los Angeles as a disc jockey on a drive time radio show. He's thinking of making an apology to his ex-wife Inez (Melvina Jones) - during their marriage he played around with other women and was a "no good" husband to her.

Inez has her own cross to bear by putting up with her part-time lesbian lover, the hot-headed and neurotic Norca (Stephanie Prentice) who lashes out at everyone, including a rather timid girl, Sonia (Danielle Levin), whom Norca mistakes for another person in Sister Rosa's class. Marsha (Laura Hope), niece of the dead sister, has illogical fits of rage and a fondness for Edwin (Brian Raffi), a placid soul and also student in Sister's class. He has the burden of caring for his mentally handicapped brother Pinky (Ashkon Davaron). Edwin is very protective and lashes out when the young man disappears for 12 hours.

A gay couple from Wisconsin also comes back for the wake. Flip (Ian Walker), a successful African American closeted attorney, brings along his partner Gail (Brian Degan Scott), a community theatre actor who does not want to be "overly gay" in appearance. The couple are having marital problems since Flip does not want to introduce Gail as his partner. To round out this cast of interesting characters is Father Lux, a Catholic priest who lost his legs in Vietnam and has lost faith in God. He is also unhappy with being in a church in Harlem because he fears and dislikes African Americans.

Playwright Guirgis is a master of dialogue, and he has made the speech realistic with naturalistic dialogue. Each character has great depth. The level of ensemble interacting under the direction of Bill English is perfect.

Hansford Prince (Los Angeles actor who has appeared in many plays and television shows) is wonderful in Rooftop's extravagantly long-winded confession to Father Lux, who is played with great passion by Keith Burkland (Monster and Our Town at the SF Playhouse). The rib-tickling confessional scene could stand on its own in any comedy routine as Rooftop goes on and on about having his first confession in 30 years. He wants to relate little anecdotes about his life while the frustrated priest just wants him to get on with the confession. In a hilarious moment, the priest says, "This in not a cook out. This is, in fact, a confessional, sir. A confessional - not a conversational."

Gabe Marin (has played in every regional theatre in the area) is flawless as the New York detective Balthazar and he looks and acts like a detective who has seen it all. His soul searching face and voice are perfect, and the soliloquy at the end of the production is heartbreaking. This is a perfect ending to the play. Laura Hope (Family Butchers at the Magic) as Marsha gives a passionate performance as she changes emotions at the drop of a hat, from being quiet to suddenly exploding in neurotic anger.

Stephanie Prentice (performed in many productions in regional theatre) gives a strong performance as the neurotic Norca, while Melvina Jones (performed in many productions in the Bay Area) is cool and collected as Inez. Brian Raffi (The Elephant Man) is a perfect gentle New Yorker with a great accent that could only come from Queens, and Ashkon Davaron( Our Town) is utterly convincing as the mentally retarded Pinky. He has one long sequence of tour de force acting in which he attempts to explain why he was delayed twelve hours in coming back to the funeral parlor.

Ian Walker (Master Harold and the Boys) as Flip and Brian Degan Scott (active in theatrical productions for 25 years) as Gail are excellent as the gay couple. Danielle Levin (The Women) is effective in the small role of Sonia, a meek young woman who seems lost in the production. Joe Madero (Gemini and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof)is first rate with a great New York accent in the opening and closing scenes.

Director Bill English (co-winner of best director award of 2005 by SFBATCC) gives a fast and tight pace to his two hour 30 minute production with one intermission. The set, designed by Bill English also, includes a real casket just off the stage in front while the set is a middle class funeral parlor. It changes to a bar on the left side and a confessional on the right side at amazing speed. Jim Cave has brilliantly lighted the stage to make it very realistic. Costumes by Bree Hylkema are typical middle class outfits with the exception of Rooftop who looks like he came from Los Angeles.

Our Lady of 121st Street plays at the SF Playhouse Theatre located at 536 Sutter Street, San Francisco (one block off Union Square) through April 8th. For tickets call their box office at 415-677-9596 or www.TicketWeb.com or the TIX box office on Union Square.


Photo: Zabrina Tipton


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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