By the time Our Lady of 121st Street chugged into the station for intermission -- the latest CAST lobby makeover is part subway tollbooth and turnstile -- Detective Balthazar's inept and dilatory investigation into the disappearance of Sister Rose's corpse had me convinced that a neat CSI solution of the crime and its motives was not on playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis' agenda. Midway through Act 2, with a dozen mourners and assorted weirdos in play, plus a multitude of dangling plot threads hanging between them, I was already way past hoping that the thieves would be apprehended. Hell, I couldn't conceive of how everything else could be tied together in a meaningful conclusion.
Neither could Guirgis, apparently, for he doesn't really take a stab at synthesis. Instead, he leaves it up to us, like bewildered out-of-towners at a really large railway station, to blunder our way toward making the connections. If we care to. For some who come to visit Our Lady (you can light a candle at a mini-shrine located near the bar) will come away feeling not only puzzled, but suspecting that the pieces don't fit together. Others will no doubt find reasons to believe that Guirgis has deftly sketched la condition humaine.
With the delicious cast assembled by director Paige Johnston Thomas and her smiling indulgence toward all eccentricity, there should be less disagreement -- and no bewilderment -- on how hilarious this whole pack of misfits is. Inside the CAST boxagon, there's a funeral parlor at one end evoked by Sister's empty casket facing a rundown diner at the other. In between, there are projection screens facing each other, filled with Jay Thomas videos that smooth transitions between scenes and enhance the grubby urban ambiance. Add a resurrected pay phone facing the outside bar, plus storefront, Chinese restaurant, corrugated aluminum garage strewn with graffiti, a sliver of construction site, and a perpetual tape loop of the 121st Street intersection -- yes, the CAST experiential thrust is in full cry.
But what is the takeout from the script? Guirgis drops a few hints on how his message might be decoded. Two of the longer scenes -- one in each act -- involve struggles between an L.A. talkshow bloviator, Rooftop, and the only clergy person in the comedy, Father Lux. In the first, Rooftop comes in for confession prior to attending the funeral, with some three decades of sins piled up since his previous absolution -- and a maddening inclination to shift the conversation away from the business at hand. Sidney Horton acknowledges, even boasts about his demons as Rooftop. Yet he's mighty uncomfortable about facing them down individually in the Father's presence. Bill Neff detonates the comedy from Rooftop as the holy Father, trying to guide the sinner with pastoral forbearance through the liberating sacrament, but he's pushed past the outer limits of his patience, exploding in frustration again and again. Expect some payback from the Father in Act 2.
More to the point, have your antennae tuned to that whole tangle of religion: how much we need its comfort, how much it annoys us by seeking to curb our instincts, and how difficult it is to practice even when a person has pledged his life to it.
Guirgis also sends out a few flamboyant flares on a related theme: how torn apart we are on love and forgiveness. The crudeness begins when we learn that Rose's most devoted mourner, Victor, played with genial vulgarity by Jim Esposito, had his pants stolen during the theft of the Sister's corpse from the funeral chapel. The price of eternal vigilance! More graphic, we find soon afterwards that Father Lux lost his legs in the Korean War. Now there's a man who is torn apart for real. The motif is further underscored later on when we learn more about Victor's trousers and Rose's remains.
Leaving the past behind and turning the page is especially difficult for Balthazar (John Cunningham), grieving over a child's death. Rooftop might be encouraged to abandon his philandering if his former wife Inez (Ifé Moore) could forgive and forget. Flip (Jonavan Adams), the closeted gay lawyer returning from Wisconsin to the 'hood for the funeral, might acknowledge the cynical, diffident Gail (Robert Haulbrook) as his mate if Gail would press the point. And Edwin (JR Adduci), saddled with the care of his younger, simpler brother Pinky (Robert L. Simmons) might let the asthmatic hysteric Marcia (Lauren Crozier) into his life if he could accept Pinky as a person rather than a full-time burden.
Women drawn by Guirgis are virulently bitchy when it comes to forgiveness. The apex of refusing to let go occurs when Norca, a lowlife Hispanic portrayed by Carmen Thwaites in a scintillating CAST debut, encounters the mournful, lily-white Sonia (Stephanie O'Neill) while out boozing with Inez. Norca mistakes Sonia for an old school nemesis and, disregarding her denials, slaps her for an offence that a Wendy had committed against her decades ago.
With all this going on, we often forget about Sister Rose's impending funeral and the outrages committed on her body parts. That's OK, since it's the nature of life to be diverted by the living -- and these actors and actresses are near-perfect in keeping us amused and engaged. Even Moore, who should slow down to be better understood, delights with her sizzling stage presence.