The Purloined Dead Nun

Decibel levels run high in Stephen Adly Guirgis's harangue-filled Our Lady of 121st Street. His characters are angry and cannot be assuaged. Nor have they mastered the art of concealing their wrath, and passive aggression doesn't seem to be a personal option. For them it's all-out war—even if their battles are often misdirected. What's made them so mad? Life would seem to be the obvious answer—life lived, more specifically, in the pressure cooker of a Harlem street.

The setup of this latest Labyrinth Theater offering is slightly macabre: Sister Rose, a beloved alcoholic nun from the neighborhood, has been stolen from her casket. A childhood friend of the deceased, Victor (a trenchant Richard Petrocelli), lets Detective Balthazar (Felix Solis) know just what he thinks of the situation: "Maybe you grew up in a godless jungle, but I remember when the world was not this!" His fury froths all the more for having his pants stolen while sleeping overnight in the funeral parlor. What's worse, he can't stop remembering all the "crackhead junkies" and other degenerate mourners, including one who answered a cell-phone call while kneeling in front of the laid-out body. Between sips from his flask, Balthazar arranges a squad car to take Victor and his outer-borough rage back to Staten Island.

Guirgis's New York is refreshingly not the Zagat one usually depicted in film and on TV. He writes about people who are not only born but suffer here, without the consolation of Broadway musicals and expense-account dining. Ain't nothing going on for these native denizens but the rent and the unending reminder that life is a battle—emotionally if not always a literal knock-down, drag-out ghetto brawl.

Our Lady of 121st Street: Not A Zagat Guide
photo: Web Wilcoxen
Our Lady of 121st Street: Not A Zagat Guide

Details

Our Lady of 121st Street
By Stephen Adly Guirgis
Center Stage/NY
48 West 21st Street
212-206-1515

The Butter and Egg Man
By George S. Kaufman
The Atlantic Theater
336 West 20th Street
212-239-5258

Dramatically, the work has much in common with the playwright's sleeper hit of a few seasons ago, Jesus Hopped the A Train, which explored the injustice of the prison system through a series of character collisions that proved more effective on a moment-to-moment basis than as a total vision. Similarly, the action of Our Lady proceeds through a succession of scenes in which two or more bereaved acquaintances of the nun confront each other at stentorian volume. An interracial gay couple argue about openness. Two women, estranged for years, resume their bickering about an incident of extramarital cheating. A softhearted man lashes regretfully into his mentally handicapped brother about irresponsibility. Yet without a revelatory thematic perspective (the play walks a vague line between urban social malaise and universal tragedy), the whole seems redundant and definitely less than the sum of its seismic parts.

Still, Guirgis—an actor's playwright if ever there was one—has mastered the lesson that conflict ignites the stage. His cast members, under the galvanic direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman, sink their teeth into their pit-bull roles. True, they could stand a bit more modulation (Hoffman keeps the pitch monotonously high). But to their collective credit, nearly all find ways of exposing the pathos at the heart of enraged misery.


Those who prefer their urban angst more screwball might opt for the Atlantic's production of George S. Kaufman's The Butter and Egg Man, a mechanical farce about the theater business that the author wrote uncharacteristically without a collaborator. The 1925 comedy has an apprentice-like quality to it. Structurally the work is tidy, though lacking in surprise; the dialogue has rhythm but little punch. A crowd-pleaser for the undemanding, the play promises wit but delivers mere earnest fun.

Peter Jones (David Turner) has just arrived in the Big Apple from Chillicothe, Ohio, wearing a seersucker suit and sucker expression. A recent windfall has propelled him east to try his hand at the glamorous but risky game of legit producing. The sight of an attractive young secretary, Jane Weston (Rosemarie Dewitt), persuades him to sign over most of his fortune to an unscrupulous pair of talent agents, Joe Lehman (Tom Mardirosian) and Jack McClure (Michael McGrath), who are determined to become hotshot producers. Trouble is, the show they're trying to launch is by all accounts a turkey. Never one to measure her remarks, Jack's wisecracking ex-wife Fanny (Julie Halston) can't resist taking potshots at the battle-ax of a leading lady who has fueled this ludicrous theatrical enterprise—which in Kaufman's warped universe just might be far-fetched enough to have a shot.

After the play bombs in a Syracuse tryout, Peter wises up to the dog-eat-dog nature of the Biz and unloads a portion of his investment on a galumphing upstate hotel manager (John Ellison Conlee), who makes the Chillicothe boy seem worldly by comparison. Though the finale ultimately sides with the innocent over the jaundiced, the journey provides a thoroughly cynical education, everyone ending up with dirt on their hands except the dopiest of characters.

Directed by David Pittu, the production wholeheartedly embraces the piece's nutty momentum. So much goes right: a uniformly strong cast, period sets, and costumes that capture 1920s New York, and the generous goodwill of the audience. Yet all these considerable assets cannot efface the fact that the play is merely a premonition of Kaufman's brilliant career to come.

 
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