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David Zayas and Al Roffe in
Our Lady of 121st Street
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Stephen Adly Guirgis has an ear for language. His plays capture the cadences of everyday speech while latching onto the emotional undercurrent behind his characters' words. This is exemplified in his latest play, Our Lady of 121st Street.

Following a sold-out run Off-Off-Broadway at the 70-seat Center Stage, the show has transferred to Off-Broadway's largest venue, the 499-seat Union Square Theatre. There were bound to be growing pains involved in such a move; but the LAByrinth Theatre production, skillfully directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, remains one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences of the season.

The action begins in the main viewing room of the Ortiz funeral home as Detective Balthazar (Felix Solis) questions a guy named Vic (Richard Petrocelli). It seems that the body of the recently deceased Sister Rose has been stolen, along with Vic's pants. The play is not constructed as a mystery, however; the disappearance of Sister Rose's corpse is merely the backdrop for the conflicts that are played out by the quirky cast of characters who have come to pay their respects to the dearly departed.

These characters converge from near and far, and the fact that many of them haven't seen each other for years heightens the tension of their reunions. They still carry scars from the ways they've hurt each other, and Guirgis captures both the pain and humor of their interactions. Rooftop (Ron Cephas Jones) is a radio jockey who suffers from a guilty conscience over his treatment of his ex-wife, Inez (Portia). Rooftop slips into a confessional booth for the first time in 15 years and pours out his heart to Father Lux (Mark Hammer), who is at first annoyed and then deeply moved by what this sinner has to tell him.

Brothers Edwin (David Zayas) and Pinky (Al Roffe) give the production its emotional core. Zayas, as the responsible older brother, is particularly commanding in a second act scene in which he confronts his mentally damaged brother about his whereabouts. Roffe is also to be commended for making his character both pathetic and believable; he avoids stereotype by immersing himself in the role and never overplaying Pinky's handicap.

The ensemble cast is the same as that seen in the show's previous engagement, with one exception: Scott Hudson has taken over the role of Gail from David Deblinger (who is currently starring in LAByrinth's production of John Patrick Shanley's Dirty Story). Hudson is physically and verbally on-target as this "exceedingly gay" man who accompanies his closeted lover, Flip (Russell G. Jones), to the funeral. It's a difficult task to step into a tight ensemble, and if Hudson has not yet achieved the emotional complexity that Deblinger brought to the role, he nevertheless delivers a fine performance.

Melissa Feldman, Portia, and Liza Colon-Zayas
in Our Lady of 121st Street
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Several of the other actors seem to have grown in their portrayals since the show's initial run last fall. The most striking change is in Elizabeth Canavan as Sister Rose's niece, Marcia; the actress sports a new hairstyle and is now taking a subtler approach to her part. Her high-octane interactions with Edwin are as loud and uproariously funny as before, but now they also communicate the character's vulnerability.

The main drawback involved in the transfer of the production is that it now seems less intimate. In the prior run, for example, Solis as Balthazar delivered one of the most heartfelt, underplayed performances I have ever had the privilege to witness. He's still good at Union Square, but he has lost some of the subtleties of his characterization in playing to a larger house.

Still, Our Lady of 121st Street should not be missed. Guirgis's script is full of passion and humor, Hoffman keeps the action moving at a nearly relentless pace, and you'd be hard pressed to find a more consistent, emotionally daring cast.

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