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In the opening moments of “Our Lady of 12st Street,” now in an explosive revival at Off Broadway’s Signature Theatre, playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis demonstrates a flare for firecracker dialogue that grabs our interest and underscores his beaten-down urban characters’ capacity for hair-trigger outbursts of anger and despair.
“What kinda f—in’ world is this?” shouts Victor (John Procaccino) beside the casket of Sister Rose, a beloved figure in the Harlem neighborhood where Guirgis’ 2003 drama is set. Victor delivers his epic rant of an opening monologue without pants — they have been stolen from him overnight, along with the corpse of the alcoholic nun who taught many of the play’s dozen or so characters.
Victor is not the only one to raise his voice in anger in “Our Lady of 121st Street,” which offers a kind of symphony of rage — much of it about the frustration borne of these well-drawn characters’ own shoddy life choices and the inevitable consequences.
The now-delayed funeral of Sister Rose provides an excuse for both a reunion of these troubled souls, as well as a reckoning with old demons.
Flip (Jimonn Cole) is a successful attorney in the Midwest who decides to recloset himself for his return to the hood — and lashes out at his longtime boyfriend (Kevin Isola), an aspiring actor who thinks he is better at passing as straight than he is, in the cruelest possible way.
Marcia (Stephanie Kurtzuba), Sister Rose’s asthmatic niece, delivers an over-the-top anti-smoking screed that belies her otherwise buttoned-up demeanor.
Rooftop (Hill Harper), a deejay in Los Angeles who bumps into the ex-wife he wronged long ago (the hilariously take-no-guff Quincy Tyler Bernstine), launches into a long-winded confession to Father Lux (John Doman) — who has a troubled history connect all his own.
Even the sweet-natured Edwin (Erick Betancourt) finally loses it by ripping into his mentally challenged brother (Maki Borden) — he feels responsible for Pinky’s head injury but also frustrated by the personal toll that caring for him has had.
Phylicia Rashad keeps most of the scenes tethered to a kind of heightened reality, allowing her uniformly talented cast to dig into the juicier disses without letting them lapse into the stuff of acting exercises. “You have to marinate before you can grill,” Rooftop tells Father Lux to explain his stall tactics before unburdening his conscience.
While the episodic nature of the play never grows tedious, it also never manages to gather much in the way of narrative momentum. There has been too much grilling, and not nearly enough marinating — or of bringing the disparate elements into a compelling whole.
“Our Lady of 12st Street” emerges as less a symphony than a collection of soliloquies that play almost like jazz solos of the loudest, most discordant Miles Davis variety. But it’s no less vital or goosebump-raising as a result.