Our Lady of 121st Street
Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Victory Barebones/Zubber Dust at The Victory Theatre Center
Through June 7
Newly awarded Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Adly Guirgis is noted for his colorful offbeat characters and the florid street vernacular they use to express themselves.
In his Our Lady of 121st Street, a group of 30- somethings reunite at a funeral home to pay their respects to a neighborhood legend: a nun named Sister Rosa who nurtured, taught and terrorized them when they were kids.
The circumstances surrounding her wake are bizarre. Someone has broken in and stolen her body. Conducting the investigation into its disappearance is one of Rosa’s former pupils, a local detective named Balthazar (Alex Alpharaoh). His chief suspect Norca (Trista Robinson) is another ex-pupil, a volatile woman with a foul and shrewish tongue and little compunction about assaulting perfect strangers.
The whereabouts of the corpse and the reasons it’s gone missing are actually secondary to the plot (although thematically its vanishing is a symbol of lost youth). Unveiled in a series of loosely linked vignettes, the dramatic focus is on the passions and tribulations of the mourners in attendance.
The most garrulous, Rooftop (Tee Williams), is a radio talk show host and self-proclaimed profligate, disingenuously boastful of his sins yet anxious to mend fences with his estranged wife Inez (Dele Ogundiran), still raging at his betrayal 15 years earlier.
There’s Flip (Napoleon Tavale), a prosperous gay attorney who’s been trailed to the event by his swishy lover Gail (Joshua David Gray), and Edwin (Christopher Salazar), a staple of the neighborhood whose life revolves around looking after his mentally disabled brother Pinky (Peter Pasco), for whose issues he feels responsible. Hanging out in a café, Edwin tangles romantically with Marcia (Ashley Platz), Sister Rosa’s asthmatic – and neurotic – cousin after he saves her life when she suffers an attack.
Guirgis’s writing offers plum opportunities for performers, especially those intrigued by the gritty urban underworld from which his stories emerge. First-time director Ruman Kazi does a pretty fair job with staging and pace, but while all the externals are there, too few of the performances have the ring of truth. The outstanding exception is Tavale, whose character maintains his charade of being straight to the end, at great cost. Gray has moments as his insecure partner, and Mark Del-Castillo Morante’s rendering of a tired priest is comic and complex.
Victory Barebones/Zubber Dust at The Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 4 p.m.; through June 7. (818) 841-5422, www.TheVictoryTheatreCenter.org