Review of Notre-Dame Theater on 121st Street



Stephen Adly Guigris won the Pulitzer Prize for his play, Between Riverside and Crazy and an earlier title that is often produced is Notre-Dame of 121st Street now playing at the Central New York Playhouse. Although he’s known for his cityscape and incredibly diverse and complex characters and great dialogue, intrigue doesn’t seem to be his forte. This is especially true for Notre-Dame, which often looks like a series of episodes; interesting conversations, but episodes nonetheless. A piece designed like this needs terrific performance and crisp, strong direction to weave things together.

Kudos to director Lynn Barbato King for approaching the play and putting together such a diverse cast. It shouldn’t have been easy for a community theater. Because it’s community theater, you’d expect the acting to vary in substance and style, especially with such a large cast. But too many scenes lack tension and subtext. Often times, a character leaves a scene with an anger that hasn’t been deserved. I scratched my head thinking about what had just happened. The play is often described as loud and comedic, but this production often feels too dark and rote. The absurdity of the premise of the first scene: the body of a beloved teaching nun is stolen from the coffin along with mourning pants never quite blossoms into the promised theatrical chaos.

There are still a few bright spots. Tony Brown as Rooftop, a former student of Sister Mary Rose is exceptional. A successful morning radio host who returns to the Old Quarter preoccupied with his past, most notably in the form of his ex-wife Inez (Martikah Williams) who hasn’t quite left the acrimonious divorce. Brown is great, relaxed, charismatic, and still believable. He commands the scene and is a pleasure to watch. Williams like Inez is also good. It is buttoned appropriately but underneath can easily cut you with a remark so neat that you will bleed for hours. And it happens so fast that you won’t even see it coming.

Joshua King as Edwin has a great physique and a great stage voice. His character often resembles the voice of the playwright and lucidly expresses the inner conflict of a character who is stuck caring for his intellectually challenged brother Pinky (Cory Simon). He has so many responsibilities, like the playwright, for all these characters. Brandilyn Kelly as Norca also has some lovely moments. There is authenticity in his performance; it’s someone you might find on 121st street.

A good effort for a play that is not easy at the community theater level, but a little more urgency and speed would give this production the legs it seeks.

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