Review: A Raucous Wake for ‘Our Lady of 121st Street’

Review: A Raucous Wake for ‘Our Lady of 121st Street’

That this harsh worldview arises from such hilariously vituperative byplay makes “Our Lady” difficult to corral. Ms. Rashad, a notable actor herself, has naturally been most successful with the performers, several of whom are new to me. (One who isn’t — Ms. Bernstine — might as well be, so completely does she erase all memories of the reserved characters she usually plays.) Like Alexis Forte’s costumes, the cast offers a very rich, primary-color rendition of a complicated group of people.

But good as they are, they too often seem to cut corners rather than hug the curves of the play’s twisty contours. Ms. Rashad’s staging, blurry and amorphous, is responsible for that. It is often difficult to tell where the action is taking place, and even where to look, on Walt Spangler’s set. 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.

I hesitate to say that the play, too, might have benefited by some rethinking. Though I still appreciate the gay couple’s “we’re just as bad as straight couples” vibe, their fight over “swishing” and butching it up feels dated even for the play’s early aughts setting. 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.

Still, no contemporary playwright is better at the long game of setting up jokes, and making them pay unexpected philosophical dividends. One of my favorites is almost a throwaway. When Rooftop is surprised to find Father Lux in a bar, the priest explains: “God spends a lot more time here than he does next door” — in the church, that is.

Rooftop answers, “Yeah, well, that explains a lot!”

I laughed, then gulped, picturing God as a drunk. If so, “Our Lady of 121st Street” is just the kind of play He’d like.

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