A Promising Relationship 

SF Playhouse stages the West Coast premiere of a smart work by Stephen Adly Guirgis.

Brooklyn's Sister Rose is dead, but it'll be hard to bury her -- someone has absconded with her body. So all the people who have come to pay their respects -- students, neighbors, relatives, and co-workers -- have to wait to see what happens. And they're an impatient bunch, from the "mucho venial" radio DJ to the alcoholic police detective. Tempers flare, old wounds are reopened, and one woman slaps another just for looking like a childhood enemy. It's keenly funny and human, enough to overlook the fact that you're going to have to hop on BART to see it.

While of course you don't need to leave the East Bay to get good theater, every now and again a show hits San Francisco that's worth the expedition. Our Lady of 121st Street is just such a show, and it's a damn shame, with its irreverence and genuinely graceful multiculti vibe, that we didn't get it first. Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis writes like Mamet -- if Mamet understood women better, believed in personal redemption, and just had more heart in general. And director Bill English has assembled a riveting cast at SF Playhouse, a newish small house (this is just its third season), to offer this West Coast premiere.

Our Lady works because the structure of the work is more oriented toward character than plot. Ten clearly demarcated scenes introduce a couple of characters at a time. As the play progresses, the scenes get more populated and more complex. Like the dialogue, the story builds in waves, and the resolutions are satisfying, if unexpected. This is not, for example, one of those plays where we learn a lot about the absent character through what the others say about her. What we learn about is the neighborhood where she served, and the delicate web of relationships and allegiances around her. It's uproariously dirty and funny, although it's not always obvious why, such as in Inez' line "They stole her body and the pants off a white man." Guirgis' ear for dialogue is pitch-perfect, and his situations so well built that the heavy messages don't seem quite so irksome, a ponderous lesson in how to behave.

One of Guirgis' main themes here appears to be personal responsibility: what we owe other people, our community, ourselves, even our dreams. Two lovers fight because one has asked the other to "tone down" the gayness back in the old neighborhood. Edwin is saddled with the care of his brother, Pinky, because of something that happened between them as kids. Rooftop makes a point about letting go and moving on that his ex-wife is not ready to hear. In a personally risky moment, Father Lux acknowledges his own failings so that he can reach someone who needs him. It could all ring horribly false, yet Guirgis makes it work and makes his characters' struggling pay off.

And boy, do they ever struggle. You learn how to fight, growing up in this neighborhood, and these people know each other well enough to know where all the buttons are. "Snatchy snatchy, no more brain," police detective Balthazar (a haunted Gabe Marin) taunts Norca in his investigation, knowing how afraid she is of being committed to a mental insitution. "You're going to be downgraded to a mammal." But Norca gets her own back; in a go-for-broke performance, Stephanie Prentice sets the character, howling, against the whole world.

One of the kids who got away from the neighborhood, Rooftop (Hansford Prince), is an up-and-coming Los Angeles DJ now. But coming back for the funeral is making him face his flaws -- an all-day process in the confessional booth with the easily frustrated Father Lux (a subtly seething Keith Burkland). Rooftop hasn't made confession in years; as he points out about the Church, "it's not like you-all got the most alluring marketing campaign." Here's his take on what he's done to the Ten Commandments: "I'll be honest: I'm running out of neighbors." Price has so much control that by the second time we see him, all he has to do is make a little throat sound and the audience cracks up. He also has a couple of the strongest moments in a play full of strong moments, completely silencing the room when he finally stops smoking weed in the confessional and gets down to what's really troubling him.

Rooftop's ex, Inez, is played by Melvina Jones, who might be familiar to audiences of Berkeley's late Transparent Theater. Jones played tragically addled teenaged crack mom Shonell in Robert O'Hara's Brave Brood five years ago. This character is all grown up and on fire. The way she goes after Norca -- and then defends a stranger in the bar -- shows lightning-fast reflexes. The whole cast has great timing. It's the sort of group where the actors build on each other's strengths. While Ashkon Davaron, for example, was fine as Boomer in Impact's Nicky Goes Goth, here he's heartbreaking, sweet, and authentic as the mentally challenged Pinky. The scenes between Flip (Ian Walker) and Gail (Brian Degan Scott) arguing over their relationship -- and by extension, deeper questions about assimilation, truthfulness, and how homosexuality is perceived -- work as well as they do because the actors are honestly engaged with each other even as the characters are not. Likewise Danielle Levin's friable Sonia has issues and then some, but it starts to make sense that she and Edwin could find each other attractive.

A longtime member of New York's LAByrinth (other well-known LAByrinthians include Eric Bogosian, Sam Rockwell, and John Patrick Shanley), Guirgis has been writing ensemble pieces, including some that featured fellow member Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman returned the favor by directing the world premiere of Our Lady in the fall of 2002. Guirgis is a young playwright to watch; even if you can't make this show, keep an eye on the silver screen. Guirgis has been working up a screenplay where, he says, "a bike messenger rounds up his old crew from the neighborhood to help kidnap their childhood friend who has joined a religious cult." If the relationships in that film are anything like the ones in this play, it's going to be a treat.

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