'Between Riverside and Crazy' review — superb cast of characters searches for stability

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

This critic all but keeled over when a character in Between Riverside and Crazy on Broadway said to another, "You're paying $1,500 a month for a palatial mansion on Riverside Drive worth ten times that." Oof. Said "mansion," as suggested by Walt Spangler's enticing set, is a rent-controlled apartment with two stories, at least six rooms, and cushy, if ill-maintained, furnishings. Meanwhile, I know people who shell out comparable rent for places that could fit double on the Hayes Theater stage.

The apartment's tenant, recent widower Walter "Pops" Washington, risks such a downgrade if his landlord succeeds in evicting him. (Pops isn't budging.) The soul-sucking ruthlessness of the NYC real estate market is just one theme of Stephen Adly Guirgis's Pulitzer-winning play that has (unfortunately) aged like wine since its 2014 Off-Broadway premiere.

Racism in policing is another. Pops is also battling his old employer, the NYPD, for just compensation for being shot off-duty by a white officer eight years before. These are the main conflicts in what is otherwise a sitcom-esque slice-of-life show. Director Austin Pendleton, returning from off Broadway, fluidly stages Between Riverside and Crazy in such a way that makes us feel like we're peering through a window as we pass by. A scene in which the set rotates continuously as conversations take place particularly achieves this effect.

It's almost as though we've stopped to marvel at the apartment, and had our curiosity further seized once we notice the people inside. In two-plus hours, Pops and a series of supporting characters slowly reveal themselves to be more than they seem.

Pops's paroled son, Junior (a fine Common in his Broadway debut), is distant and shifty, but he quietly craves his father's love. Rosal Colón is a standout as Junior's flighty girlfriend Lulu, who demands the respect she's worth. Victor Almanzar, as recovering addict Oswaldo, has a nervous energy that turns to mania directed at Pops when he falls off the wagon again. All see Pops as a father figure, who dryly bucks the label but is fiercely protective of them in his own unfussy way.

They're complemented by a few non-down-and-outs of the bunch: Detective Audry O'Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and Lieutenant Dave Caro (Michael Rispoli), Pops's former coworkers begging him to settle his lawsuit, and a woman known only as Church Lady (a tantalizing Liza Colón-Zayas), who comes to give Pops communion and brings about another bodily miracle. They, too, reveal new sides and motivations as the play progresses.

All but Common are reprising roles they originated in 2014, so every performance feels as lived-in as the apartment. Henderson especially delivers a masterclass in saying volumes with a mere expression, and making his every word — from sharp jabs at his housemates to thoughtful observations on his Blackness and his profession — land perfectly with seemingly no effort.

Lines like "This [settlement] ain’t about no Black, white, or blue — this is about the green" could feel preachy in a less skilled actor's hands, but they remain as astute as on the page in Henderson's. And remember, every character is more than their outward presentation. The genius of Guirgis's writing is in inclining us to stand with Pops in these moments of truth, even once he admits to some morally gray deception. The same goes for every expertly crafted character.

Between Riverside and Crazy is about the lengths people will go to make out alright in an unforgiving world. Even if we can't relate to the characters' constant threat of eviction or arrest, we can understand and be moved by their search — rent-wise or otherwise — for a little stability.

Between Riverside and Crazy is at the Hayes Theater through February 12. Get Between Riverside and Crazy tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar, Elizabeth Canavan, Michael Rispoli, Liza Colón-Zayas, Rosal Colón, and Common in Between Riverside and Crazy. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

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