A Feel-Bad Comedy for the Ages

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L-R: Trista Robinson, Délé Ogundiran, Jessica Borne in Our Lady of 121st Street. photo by PERSONAL PROPAGANDA

In context of declining popular interest in the medium we call theater, a young scholar recently asked where I saw the future. I said I thought the future lay in excellence. You have to make magnificent art these days, because mediocre art has destroyed the market for pretty good art. Television and film have perfected the model of acceptable, commonplace entertainment product. It’s not fair to ask people to sit through a staged attraction, for which a couple of tickets cost as much as a monthly cable bill, that fails to rise to the level of a television episode. If your two-act comedy isn’t any funnier, more profound, more stylistically daring than something from the third season of Friends: why put it up?

Stephen Adly Guirgis would seem to agree. Writing in the New York Observer about a Philip Seymour Hoffman-directed production in 2003, John Heilpern was sufficiently impressed to call Guirgis’s Our Lady of 121st Street the “best new play in a decade.” Well, maybe the 90s weren’t a watershed for new plays – certainly no more exciting than the following ten years – and it is true that Mr Heilpern was already a fan of David Mamet’s eloquent profanity, a specialty Guirgis often seems to channel. But Our Lady is no doubt an inspiring piece of work that makes one optimistic for the new wave of American playwrights, well worth the praise that has been heaped on its author.

One of the smartest things about Guirgis’s black comedy is its pitch, a heightened reality in which it seems reasonable that humble folk are able to express themselves with violent, poetic clarity, and in which lofty themes (loyalty, repentance, responsibility) may be treated as seriously as in Greek drama without seeming precious or absurd. Our Lady veers a little sentimental later on, and the playwright has since written better-structured plays: The Motherfucker with the Hat is awfully good, and enough people liked Between Riverside and Crazy to award it the 2015 Pulitzer a couple of weeks back. Still, Our Lady is no easily-forgotten early work.

Gathering for the funeral of a beloved, alcoholic nun from their old neighborhood school, a disparate class of misfits and sad sacks investigates the angel wings, and the knives in their backs, that grew from Old Acquaintance. Some of the classmates, now in their mid thirties, left Harlem and achieved a measure of success – a nationally-syndicated DJ, a Minnesota lawyer. Most, stunted by early trauma, stayed and festered in New York – a drunken cop with horrific tragedy in his recent past, a tenement super who ought to be doing something more than taking care of his brain-damaged brother, a woman embittered by her failed marriage to the DJ, a drug-addict party girl with a chip on each shoulder and one between her legs.

Other dearly beloved include a niece of the deceased, a woman from Connecticut who has no good excuse for being at this funeral, the “tell me the truth, how gay do I look?” lover of one of the classmates, a priest from the old diocese who lost his legs in Korea and his faith in Upper Manhattan, and a man who has had his trousers stolen by the same hooligans who broke into the funeral parlor and also, incidentally, stole the nun’s corpse. Remember, it’s a comedy.

If the old-home-week set up and characters-with-grim-histories population seem a little familiar (Jason Miller’s That Championship Season comes to mind, and a dozen funeral/anniversary/holiday get-together plays and movies), I haven’t seen a reunion story as unrepentantly funny about unfunny stuff, nor many plays of any stripe as simultaneously raw and thematically consistent as this one.

Ruman Kazi directs some remarkable, larger-than-life performances here, the kind of live work you only get to see up close when it’s in an intimate house like the Victory, under a contract like the 99 seat waiver. (The folks who run the Victory were among the original plaintiffs in the suit that brought about the 99 seat plan thirty years ago.) John Del Regno provides as ecstatic a top-of-show tonal set-up as I’ve seen in years. The other outstanding actors include a quietly ingenious Tee Williams, the graceful and fierce Délé Ogundiran, and an uproariously well-timed Ashley Platz. Trista Robinson brings a shocking intensity and a sustained technical integrity that, if it could benefit from a little modulation, will long stand in my memory as a delight I didn’t see coming. The petite actor just does not look like she’s going to bring all that force.

The first act consists of scenes with a few characters at a time. Act two opens up to allow more of these hilariously damaged people to share space and time. Kazi stages the brilliantly-written moments with tact and a good feel for the emotional crisis, the interesting stage picture, and the capacity of an audience to consume such overwhelming literacy. These are well-orchestrated performances prettily arranged under Chantelle House’s functional lighting, on Kim Cahoon’s almost-good-enough set.

The set is fine during the scenes proper, even if it doesn’t reflect the sturm-und-drang aesthetic of the acting design, and what’s wrong with it isn’t Cahoon’s fault entirely. But as of opening night, she and her director had not taken into account the limitations of their space and how a set could best serve the production. Kazi has allowed the dressing and undressing and redressing (of essentially only two locations) with virtually every lights-down, greatly to the detriment of the show’s pacing.

These scenes should flow together, but they come off as disjointed vignettes. Carefully built moments have their massive energy squandered, every single time, to allow for overlong transitions that, while mostly well-ordered, still kill the momentum dead. A dart board and a few chairs and glasses are no trade-off for blackouts of over a minute. The show could get along fine without them; hardly anyone uses the dart board to particular effect anyway (with the exception, opening night, of three perfect pitches from Joshua David Gray). The problem is fixable, and I hope it is addressed before next weekend’s performances.

The show has another issue, uneven casting, that likely will not get fixed. Kazi and dramaturge Jane Fleiss-Brogger are well-reflected in that the actors all know what they’re saying, and recognize the importance or tangentiality of their moments. But a couple of the actors are challenged beyond their ability to achieve both the appropriate manic state of Kazi’s production and the emotional demands of their difficult roles. No doubt they will grow as a result of their work with these other remarkable actors and this very good actor’s director. It remains a thrilling entertainment, overall enormously well-acted and more than worth a trip to a nice neighborhood in Burbank.

The producing body is the Zubber Dust Players, a new company residing for now at Maria Gobetti and Tom Ormeny’s Victory Theatre Center (Gobetti and Ormeny produced, along with cast member Alex Alpharaoh), and I look forward to further stimulating work from artistic director Kazi. One thing I hope I don’t see him do again is deliver a pre-curtain speech reminding the audience in self-consciously provocative terms to get ready for a challenging piece of theater. His work spoke for itself, and spoke well of him, rather despite than because of his actual speech. When you’ve got a good show, just show it, man. We’re with you. We can handle it. It’s why we came.

Our Lady of 121st Street by Stephen Adly Guirgis

produced by Victory Bare Bones and the Zubber Dust Players

plays Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 4 & 8 pm, Sundays at 4 pm through June 7

Little Victory Theatre at the Victory Theatre Center

3324 West Victory Boulevard, Burbank CA 91505

Tickets: (818) 841-5422 or www.TheVictoryTheatreCenter.org