Sister Rose is dead and gone. Like real gone. Like someone stole her corpse. Along with the pants of Victor, one of the 12 people who gather to pay their respects, more or less, in Stephen Adly Guirgis's gas of a dark comedy "Our Lady of 121st Street."
Guirgis went to school in Harlem, so the lovable losers who meet at the funeral home are not just the quirky offspring of a mischievous mind. Guirgis is able to write about these people without the sentimentality or condescension that often sticks to working-class people described by middle-class writers. He takes delight in making their foibles hysterically funny while honoring their deadened souls and not-quite-dead aspirations.
The SpeakEasy Stage Company's New England premiere is able both to go over the top and to capture the nuances of Guirgis's characters. Sister Rose, for example, is neither the grotesque sadist of a Christopher Durang play nor a pure soul ministering to the poor. As those who've gathered to mourn the nun recall, she was alcoholic and often physically abusive to her students, but she was also one of the few people who truly cared about them. And no matter how cynical they are, they need to pay respect.
It's "Mean Streets" leavened by "The Bells of St. Mary's." Guirgis has learned the poetic use of the F word (and quite a few others that can't be printed here) from David Mamet. The rants and riffs of his characters are often a brilliant mix of street smarts and wry writing.
Take Rooftop, a hip ne'er-do-well who, to avoid meeting his ex, steps into a confessional. The legless, misanthropic priest asks him what he's afraid of, which elicits: "Goddamnit, Father, I'm afraid a everything! . . . Afraid I'm never gonna be the person I thought I'd be, back when I had all the time in the world to get there . . . [My ex-wife] don't like me! I don't like me! And I'm afraid that the person I'll like least wherever I go will always be me!"
Rooftop is played by the amazing Vincent E. Siders, who has turned in two of the best performances of the season in Boston -- as Sally Hemings's brother in "Monticel' " and now as Rooftop. Siders goes so deeply into his characters that it's hard to imagine them being played any differently, let alone any better.
And he's just about matched here by four strong female actors: Jacqui Parker, Elaine Theodore, Jennifer Young, and Stacy Fischer (whose downturned, nerdish mouth is enough to send you into a giggle fit). Each of the women they play has her own major problems, and each actor is a joy to watch exploring them.
Director Paul Melone finds the right rhythms in the play. There is a suitably calm pacing that complements the not-always-comedic sturming and dranging of the characters. The other male actors do a good job of marching together, though Ricardo Engermann and Jim Spencer seem half a beat behind. Eric Levenson's set is well-appointed, even if it's not always clear where the action is taking place.
At 39, Guirgis is one of the bright hopes of the theater, having written three plays for New York's LAByrinth Theater Company, including "Jesus Hopped the A Train," all directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. At his worst he can seem to be writing nothing more than clever one-liners, but sooner or later he bursts out of that straitjacket to deliver something stronger. At his best, like Mamet, he combines the insightful and the profane. "Our Lady of 121st Street" has the same sense of warped lucidity that marked "American Buffalo" when it first appeared, though it lacks Mamet's broader socioeconomic critique. As a playwright, Guirgis is an American original -- in fact, he might become one of our best.
Ed Siegel can be reached at email@example.com.
Our Lady of 121st Street
Play in two acts by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Directed by : Paul Melone. Set and lights, Eric Levenson. Costumes, Jenna Rossi-Camus.
Produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company.
At: Boston Center for the Arts, through March 27. 617-426-2787.