Sister Rose’s body has been stolen from her casket, and as the lights come up on the funeral-home setting of Our Lady of 121st Street, a man with no pants is bellowing to a police detective that the thief “should rot in hell, and demons should shit in his mouth daily.” The detective recognizes a kindred spirit—this being the sort of ornate curse indicating formative years spent in the presence of nuns with rulers—and suggests a trip to a nearby bar to “take the edge off.”
“I prefer to keep my edge on,” growls the pantsless man.
So far, so funny. And as their impasse gives way to Rudy Giuliani jokes and then to a story of personal anguish strong enough to dwarf the pantsless man’s distress, a Kubler-Ross dynamic takes over the scene, with stages of grief mirrored by stages of grievance.
I’m going to hazard a guess that whoever snatched Sister Rose’s body (and the pantsless guy’s pants) also purloined playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis’ plot, because the evening that follows doesn’t really have one. The missing corpse turns out to be a red herring, the mystery of its disappearance commented on only in passing and never really resolved. But the thief left behind a waiting room populated by colorful mourners, and as they joke with and rail at each other then repair to the bar when the mortuary is closed off as a crime scene, the wake for the nun who taught them in parochial school ends up a sort of class reunion.
As might be expected, emotions run riot, with memories of alcoholic but saintly Sister Rose leading to reminiscences of a more personal nature. No sooner has the detective convinced the pantsless man to go find some slacks than the motley crew of former students and hangers-on shows up. There’s a closeted lawyer who reaps a furious glare from his flamingly gay boyfriend when he ineptly bobbles an introduction. Then there’s a catfight between dressed-to-the-nines Inez and trashy Norca, over a long-ago betrayal involving Inez’s hedonistic ex-husband, Rooftop. As it happens, Rooftop is cowering nearby, making his first confession in 20 years to a legless priest who hasn’t left his Harlem church’s grounds in years because he’s afraid of black people. Also on hand are two joined-at-the-hip Latino brothers (one brain-damaged, the other long-suffering), and Sister Rose’s bipolar, asthmatic niece, accompanied by an emotional lightning rod of a friend with an odd talent for alienating people.
These socially straitjacketed oddballs have not been rounded up for anything quite so organized as a narrative. The author has brought them together mostly so that they can chatter away, letting their various complaints and animosities drown out the prevailing loneliness in their lives. And, while that’s nice for them, it’s not really much of a peg to hang a theatrical evening on. Each conversation leads agreeably enough to the next, but there’s no forward momentum to the scenes, no thematic link to hold an audience’s interest, no casting trick (say, having all the characters played by Lily Tomlin) to provide a reason to attend to these particular folks at this particular juncture in their lives. We’re simply bystanders at a carefully constructed nonevent—a wake that will fail to take place, for lack of a body.
Guirgis’ ferocious prison drama, Jesus Hopped the A Train, didn’t have this problem when it played earlier this year at Round House (with some of the same performers). A Train’s dialogue crackled with street poetry as its characters riffed on religion, cash, and their own limited aspirations, and I suspect something similar is intended here—a sort of linguistic jazz. But the music isn’t tripping as persuasively from the actors’ tongues as it might, and the author seems to undercut emotional confrontations with jokes a bit too often.
The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, is theatrical stasis. Which is not to say that the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company hasn’t put considerable resources into getting things moving. John Vreeke’s staging is brisk and peppered with sight gags, the cast of 12 is forceful (if unconvincing in darker moments), and the design team has created plenty of essentially irrelevant but attractive scenic and aural effects—wailing sirens; flashing traffic lights; revolving, graffiti-covered walls pocked with religious icons; and an expensive-looking coffin that floats majestically to the ceiling after the first scene and stays there for the duration. It’s all very impressive, and occasionally pretty funny, but never as affecting nor as involving as it means to be. CP