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Panic attack:
David Zayas helps Elizabeth Canavan with
her inhaler in Our Lady of 121st Street
(Photo: Webb Wilcoxen)
"What kind of fuckin' world is this?!" asks a character at the top of Stephen Adly Guirgis's compelling, funny, and dynamic new play, Our Lady of 121st Street, directed by stage and screen actor Philip Seymour Hoffman for the LAByrinth Theatre Company. The world the playwright creates is filled with random craziness and dysfunctional relationships. In short, it's a world very much like our own.

This character-driven, dark comedy revolves around the death of Sister Rose, a nun who was much loved by an uptown neighborhood's residents. Guirgis is careful not to idealize the good Sister; it's clearly stated that she was an abuse survivor with an alcoholic bent. She could also be quite strict and was feared as much as she was loved. Yet, as one character notes, "so many people are turnin' up outta the woodwork [for her funeral] 'cuz, in their heart, they know...she was Our Lady."

As the play begins, we discover that Sister Rose's body has disappeared; the funeral room where the empty casket sits is closed off as a crime scene and the mourners are forced to hang around waiting for news. Due to these extraordinary circumstances, emotions are running especially high. As the characters wait, they confront each other and themselves about their shared pasts and uncertain futures.

Guirgis has a gift for capturing the absurdities of conversation -- the non-sequiturs as well as the emotional undercurrents running just beneath the words. His characters are quirky but all too human; they speak with a passion and urgency that cuts through a lot of the normal, everyday social niceties. This muscular language gives actors plenty to work with, and this cast certainly does not disappoint.

Each member of the twelve-person ensemble is outstanding in his or her own special way, but there are a few performances that cry out for individual praise. Among these is Felix Solis as the alcoholic police detective, Balthazar. Solis conveys a wealth of emotion with the subtlest change of expression; still traumatized and guilt-ridden over the death of his son several years earlier, Balthazar's self-destructive behavior is painfully real and emotionally devastating.

David Deblinger is hilarious as the "exceedingly gay" Gail, who accompanies his lover Flip (Russell G. Jones) to the funeral. Flip wants Gail to tone down his gayness a few notches, as Flip is not out to the childhood friends he'll soon be seeing, and Gail seizes on this to question their entire relationship. The character is a fascinating combination of major insecurities and virulent self-centeredness, and Deblinger somehow manages not to let his portrayal slip too far into stereotype; instead, he emotionally grounds the character so that his bittersweet journey within the play is clearly motivated.

Another tour-de-force performance is handed in by David Zayas as Edwin, one of the many mourners who was profoundly influenced by Sister Rose. The actor's facial expressions are priceless, particularly in the Act I scene in which Edwin meets Sister Rose's niece, Marcia (Elizabeth Canavan). He also captures the conflicted emotions of anger and love towards his mentally damaged brother, Pinky (Al Roffe). It turns out that Edwin blames himself for his brother's condition (as a child, he threw a brick out the window and it landed on Pinky's head) and is attempting a kind of penance through self-abnegation.

Many of the characters go to great lengths to communicate and even empathize with each other but, somehow, end up much more concerned about themselves than the people to whom they're reaching out. A brilliant example of this is when Marcia tries to comfort Edwin after an emotional blow-out with his brother. The two flirt with the possibility of a relationship, but Edwin pulls away out of loyalty and responsibility towards Pinky, and a frustrated Marcia cries out: "Well what good does that do me?!"

Liza Colon-Zayas and Portia in
Our Lady of 121st Street
(Photo: Webb Wilcoxen)
In a cast as large as this one, it's inevitable that certain characters and the actors who play them don't get enough stage time. Norca (Liza Colon-Zayas) only appears in two scenes in the first act -- but she certainly makes an impression, particularly in a confrontation with Inez (Portia), whom she grew up with and screwed over.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is an actors' director, bringing out the best in the members of the ensemble in service to the play. There are several screaming matches in Our Lady of 121st Street and yet they never seem forced or excessive, thanks to Hoffman's tight direction and relentless pacing; every single shout is motivated and helps to build dramatic tension. Hoffman is equally adept at controlling the pauses and prolonged moments of silent action that allow for the emotional shifts occurring in the characters.

Hoffman directed the premieres of Guirgis's last two plays, In Arabia, We'd All Be Kings and Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train. A number of the actors also appeared in these productions or other LAByrinth shows, which perhaps accounts for the terrific ensemble work. The high quality of the production is also due -- at least in part -- to the fact that LAByrinth is committed to emphasizing the "LAB" portion of its name. Our Lady of 121st Street opens after an extended workshop period during which playwright Guirgis tightened the script and clarified several of the characters' relationships to each other. He has also tweaked the ending of the play, which is now more ambiguous than before and is stronger because of that ambiguity.

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