Review by Tulis McCall
24 February 2015
OKAY - I am flabbergasted at this one. I have read the other reviews of Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis (transferred from The Atlantic Theater Company and now at Second Stage Theatre) and think perhaps I saw a play that no one else saw. The play they saw made sense. The one I saw did not.
Walter “Pops” Washington (Stephen McKinley Henderson), a former police officer, is sipping his life away – whiskey and morning coffee – in a rent-controlled three bedroom pre-war apartment on Riverside Drive. He is paying $1500 a month.
Now, anyone who has lived in New York is salivating at this moment. You may be actually wondering where this apartment is so you can pay Pops a vist.
Take a number.
Since Walter’s wife died, the only person left to inherit the apartment is his son Junior (Ron Cephas Jones) but he is not a likely candidate because his source of income is a little vague. Ditto that of his live in girlfriend Lulu (Rosal Colón) who is studying “accounting” (wink-wink). The other person living there is a young ex-con who is trying to make life on the outside work. Oswaldo, a friend of Junior’s, (Victor Almanzar) has found sanctuary at Pop’s place and his gratitude is so thick you could spread it on toast.
The reason that none of this works well is symbolized by the dead Christmas tree in the living room. The wheel chair that Walter uses tells us a lot as well. It’s not that he needs it. It was his wife’s. It is something from the past onto which Walter clings. In addition, and most important, is the case Walter brought against the police department for being shot while he was off duty. Walter claims he was shot because he was black. Surprise.
The case is over 8 years old, and Walter has refused a settlement. So the stagnant air that fills this sad apartment emanates from Walter’s heart, or lack thereof. And part of what drives Walter around the bend is that he knows it.
Enter his ex-partner, Detective Audrey O’Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and her fiancé Lieutenant Dave Caro (Michael Rispoli). They are there to celebrate their engagement. And, oh yeah, to talk to Walter about settling the case with the police. Walter’s landlord has grounds to evict him, now that his wife has gone and the place seems to be a weigh station for low-lifes. In addition, a settlement would be a feather in the cap of Caro.
This scene is about 20 minutes in and is the first sign of a plot that we discover. The rest of the play rolls out on this path, but not before a drunk Oswaldo shows up on his door, a church woman of some mystery visits Walter to raise him out of his despair, and there is a Come To Jesus moment with his son. Finally Walter Audrey and Dave have a showdown, and here Giurgis hands us some surprising twists. In the end, everything falls apart and comes back together in a baffling conclusion.
What baffled me was the number of holes in this plot. Pop buys Junior a ticket to Baltimore for the weekend – why? Who is Lulu and why is she in the story? The Church Lady (Liza Colón-Zayas) seems to drop in from nowhere and then disappears. What is at stake for Dave and Audrey in getting the settlement handled? What does Junior actually do when he is not in the apartment? What has Walter been doing for the past 8 years? And who the heck is Oswaldo?
Henderson gives a mighty performance, but the character of Walter, like the rest, is locked into a very small box with no way out. It is always a pleasure to see Ron Cephas Jones who has an internal clock that you can almost hear ticking, and Michael Rispoli makes the most of his time onstage. But these performances, even with Austin Pendleton’s direction, are not enough to glue this story together.
I understand, or think I do, that Guirgis is writing about lives that don’t “fit” the smooth path that we like to see onstage – the ones who make us think we should be like them. And he raises blunt issues about race that we don’t see enough of in our art. Hats off to that. But this story is jaw-dropping in its lack of credulity. The result is that we are bumped off the wagon and left in the dust.
We do leave the theatre with these folks on our minds, but they don’t stay there long.
"'Between Riverside and Crazy,' the rich new play from Stephen Adly Guirgis, resides in an in-between land of its own. I’d locate it somewhere south of cozy and north of dangerous, west of sitcom and due east of tragedy."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"This is a black comedy, and the dialogue snaps and crackles, especially in the first act. The actors are sneakily funny without looking like they’re trying, and director Austin Pendleton makes great use of Walt Spangler’s impressive rotating set."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"Director Austin Pendleton fosters wonderfully natural performances from his actors, led by Stephen McKinley Henderson’s cranky, contentious yet endearing Pops. With the exception of Jones, the entire company originated their roles in the Atlantic premiere and everyone’s tightly-meshed work as an ensemble is a pleasure to see."
Michael Sommers for New Jersey Newsroom
"Featuring hilariously pungent, profanity-laden dialogue and deceptively complex characterizations, the play feels somewhat rambling in its plotting."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter
"Everyone’s bound to be captivated by Guirgis’s loudmouthed locals and the terrific ensemble players, led by Stephen McKinley Henderson, who bring them to roaring life in Austin Pendleton’s affectionately helmed production."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...