Our Lady of 121st Street

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

What’s the critics’ favorite criticism of Steppenwolf Theatre? I mean, aside from that the original members stopped being 25 about 25 years ago, which is actually a regret rather than a criticism. Come on, you know this. Yes, it’s that they pick their plays with only one thing in mind: good roles. Nothing else quite matters at Steppenwolf, the argument goes, as long as actors can have some gratifying moments onstage.

There are loads of examples, the most notorious being Wrong Turn at Lungfish, a comedy that only an actor might find fun. Produced in 1990, it was also taken as an indication of creeping bigheadedness at Steppenwolf, since the irredeemable script was written by a couple of Hollywood honchos, Garry Marshall (of Laverne & Shirley among other shows) and Lowell Ganz (screenwriting partner of the exquisitely nicknamed “Babaloo” Mandel). Nothing beat Wrong Turn at Lungfish for thespocentricity.

Until now. Now there’s Our Lady of 121st Street. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play about a mad funeral in Harlem is the ultimate Steppenwolf show, at least insofar as the critics’ favorite criticism is concerned: it’s absolutely pointless except as a series of great set pieces for actors.

This is not evident at first. Like the two other Guirgis plays I’ve encountered–Jesus Hopped the “A” Train, which was produced at Steppenwolf two years ago, and In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings–this one opens on a note of high, foulmouthed agitation. A 50-ish white man named Vic stands before us in white shirt, dark tie, suit jacket, oxfords, calf-high black socks, and boxer shorts, barking at a Latino police detective named Balthazar. Somebody’s stolen not only his pants but the body of the nun, Sister Rose, whose wake he’d expected to attend. “There are limits,” Victor, well, barks–there’s no better word. “I don’t give a shit! Maybe you grew up in a godless jungle, but I remember when the world was not this! And this? This is not the world!”

OK, we tell ourselves, the next two acts will be about the nun’s body and the pants. Maybe we’ll find out who took them. Maybe we’ll find out why. On the way, maybe we can expect some more barking on the subjects of class, race, and the sad degradation of individual and communal life in our inner cities.

But no. Although we do find out what became of Sister Rose, the search isn’t dramatized and the answer is dropped as an afterthought–albeit a rather special afterthought, vivid in its grotesqueness. Neither the culprit nor his motivation is named in anything more than a hinting way. The nun’s death and subsequent snatching, it turns out, are just a couple of mechanisms, designed first to cause a crowd of her former students to gather, and second to compel them to stick around a while.

No other candidates for meaning–or primary focus, for that matter–are offered. No plot. No through line. No subject. No point. Just pure premise. Sure, Guirgis gives Balthazar a kind of portentous metaphor to deliver, but its only real function is to provide a neat last line for the play. So we’ll know when it’s time to applaud. Even Marshall and Ganz felt obliged to pretend there was an idea behind Wrong Turn at Lungfish. Guirgis can’t be bothered. He’s got a dozen actors to feed.

And what a marvelous, cussed feast he gives them. After Vic’s had his rant and Balthazar’s introduced his metaphor we meet Rooftop, a disc jockey who finds himself in the confessional with Father Lux after a life spent “lyin’, cheatin’, stealin’, and humpin’.” Further on there’s Flip, whose desire to keep his homosexuality quiet triggers a confrontation with his very fey lover, Gail. A building super named Edwin has painful, surreal conversations with his brain-damaged brother Pinky. Rooftop’s former wife, Inez, throws herself between a timid white woman and an angry alcoholic Latina named Norca. And then everybody rotates.

Occasionally Our Lady of 121st Street falls back on formula. The dynamic between Pinky and Edwin, for instance, is as familiar as it is sentimental. The timid white lady, Sonia, is a type that would once have been played by Sandy Dennis (and in fact Rebecca Spence’s performance here reads like an homage to Dennis). But even Guirgis’s cliches are never less than exuberant: at once slick and reckless, dark and funny and ruthless and coyly calculated in their harsh poetry. The very centerlessness of the script can be seen as a concession to Guirgis’s exuberance, as if he were just too full to be restrained by literary architecture.

But even if every other character in this play were nothing more than a cardboard cutout we would still have Norca. As inhabited by Marisabel Suarez, this violent, sloppy, wounded monster is by far the scariest, truest, riskiest, most vital thing onstage: an epic cross between Aileen Wuornos and Grendel’s mother.

Not that there aren’t other centers of vitality. Chicago stalwart Matt DeCaro is more than coming into his own at middle age; even in boxers, his Vic manages to maintain an absurd, hilarious dignity. E. Milton Wheeler is another local actor who’s recently reached his prime. His lost patter opposite Robert Breuler’s Father Lux is a tour de force. Ricardo Gutierrez is affecting as Balthazar, especially in his quiet absorption of the blow when Norca gives him a psychic kick in the teeth.

A little surprisingly, Will Frears’s direction emphasizes the sense that each interaction is a set piece. There are no concessions to naturalism: deeply personal arguments and flesh-rending admissions are never toned down in acknowledgment of public surroundings. The combatants just stand there and go at it, full out. Tom Lynch’s set is possessed of the same spirit; featuring a chapel floating in a cityscape, it’s a formidable, fanciful thing. And so is the show, once you get over the expectation of coherence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.