by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

Our Lady of 121st Street--Scenes From the Street
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman
Union Square Theater
100 East 17th Street
Reviewed by Margaret Croyden April 30, 2003

Stephen Adly Guirgis, the author of "Our Lady of 121st Street " has been extreamly lucky. He already has had a profile in the Magazine section of the "New York Times" and has been hailed by some critics as the best new playwright on the scene. Although he has not got a heavy repertory of plays, he has earned a good reputation with his first work "Jesus Hopped the 'A'Train, which won the Fringe Award in 2001 at the Edinburgh Festival. Later the play moved to London's Donmar Warehouse and then to the Arts Theater, also in London. He has worked continually with the same company, LaByrinth, and his plays have always been directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. So it seems that Mr. Guirgis is really on his way--perhaps uptown next time. Right now he has received excellent notices for "Our Lady" and the word of mouth has been heavy. It has been touted a "must see."

And yet I was repelled by the play. Is it because I am a classicist, a traditionalist, uncool, and unaccustomed to the style of street people and their sensibilities--as dramatized in this production. Maybe all of the above, but mostly I am just sick and tired of hearing a non-stop barrage of four letter words on the stage for over two hours. Here is the story. The play takes place in a funeral home where a number of young people come to the Wake for their teacher--the lady of 121st street, a nun. They have known each other from the neighborhood, some from childhood--all of them from their school days, all of whom have had bitter relations with each other. In the midst of it all, the nun's body has been stolen and the police have been sent in to investigate. As a crude symbol signifying the coarseness of the environment, it also serves as a theatrical framework for the participants to act out their miserable relationships with each other and with the world.

In each scene two people (maybe three) dramatize their problems: they fight, scream, curse, and act out their traumas. Off they go and the next two appear--not very different from the first pair: they also scream, fight and argue. The dialogues between two people could have been an interesting form but it's delivered in the same mode each time--it all talk all the time. No imagery, nothing visual. The set is realistically dismal as a lower class funeral home would be, and the characters are equally dismal. All of them are angry, belligerent, violent and never speak; they only scream.

And what a collection of characters. Each one is furious, and in their rage spew out a variety of four letter words that make up their vocabulary. There are vulgarities on top of vulgarities, shouting on top of shouting, and ugly confrontations. All of which is hard to follow, because the actors never speak clearly--they are too busy shouting their obscenities. But one does get the idea. The characters are on the edge--on the edge of hatred and hostility so severe as to be an assault on the audience. But one person in the intermission said it is no more vulgar than "The Sopranos" How true.

That is exactly the point. For me, the obscenities were a failure of the imagination-- a failure to use theatrical language and theatrical imagery. The argument that street people do talk this way, and one can hear this kind of speech any time of the day in the bus or subway, in the movies and television, so what's the fuss? All True. But I thought the theater was still some place where language could be enhanced, so that even if the story is about street people, an artist can still find ways to dramatize his subject without relying entirely on the actualities. What may be true in life does not always make good theater. I think of Langston Hushes and his poetry of the street, I think of August Wilson and his poetic use of black English and of certain rhythms he uses without sacrificing the reality of the characters.

Is it possible to write about vulgar people without being vulgar? Is it possible to dramatize hatred, hostility and persecution without the actors' screaming, grimacing and cursing? In this play, the author's use of ultra realism has reached the end of the line because the language and its rendering of it is so extreme, that any important message in the play is obscured.

Stephen Adly Guirgis is undoubtedly talented, and I would like to see more of his work. But I would hope that he had more to say and more to do than just letting his characters act out their madness, without a sense of clarity or logic.[Croyden]

Margaret Croyden's latest book, "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000," is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux.

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