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'Between Riverside and Crazy' original cast members on coming to Broadway, performing the play for the third time

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is now making its Broadway debut.

Joe Dziemianowicz
Joe Dziemianowicz

Once is not enough. Nor, for that matter, is twice. As Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Pulitzer Prize winner Between Riverside and Crazy readies for its official Broadway opening at the Hayes Theater, six actors who originated the play's roles feel triply blessed to be performing them for a third time in New York.

Between Riverside and Crazy revolves around Walter “Pops” Washington, a widowed former policeman whose rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side sets the scene for dramas, including one with his landlord as well as a discrimination lawsuit against the NYPD. His situation threatens to upend the lives of Pops, his son Junior, and a couple of down-and-outs Pops has taken in.

Emmy, Grammy, and Oscar winner Common is the sole newcomer in the cast, playing Junior. The remaining six actors appeared in the first Off-Broadway production of Between Riverside and Crazy in 2014 at Atlantic Theater Company, its remount a year later with Second Stage Theater, and now its Broadway debut, also with Second Stage. That's eight years since they first joined the play, which means their connection to their complex, flawed, yet compassionate characters has only deepened with time.

New York Theatre Guide spoke with all six threepeaters about what first spoke to them about Between Riverside and Crazy – and what keeps them coming back for more.

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Stephen McKinley Henderson: Walter “Pops” Washington

“It was a real surprise when we moved from one Off-Broadway house to another – and now to Broadway. It’s always a joy and a challenge to come back. You don’t want to mar a wonderful memory,” said Henderson, who is drawn to the warts-and-all imperfections of the characters Guirgis creates.

“Stephen writes men and women who are very human,” Henderson said. “There are times when you could say, ‘Oh my God, how could they do that?’ And then you can also see how tender they can be.” Flaws and mistakes aren’t meant to fuel condemnation or judgment, according to Henderson. “All of Stephen’s characters are redeemable and valuable.”

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Elizabeth Canavan: Detective Audry O’Connor

“I come from a blue-collar family and had a great childhood,” said Canavan, whose character is Pops’s ex-NYPD partner. “My mother immigrated to this country from Belfast, Northern Ireland, and my father was a carpenter.

“In this play I can work from my own experience,” she continued. “I don’t have to put on any airs or anything. I can be myself, and that’s rare.” Equally rare, she added, is the playwright’s grasp on the in-between gray areas that are realities of life. “No one is really the hero, no one is really the villain in Stephen’s plays. Everyone can relate to that.”

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Michel Rispoli: Lieutenant Caro

“I generally play cops or crooks, so over the years I’ve done a lot of research,” said Rispoli. “I also have cops in my family.” For his role as Caro, Audry's fiance who’s working his way up the NYPD food chain, Rispoli checked in with “cop friends and cop relatives” for their input on how they would respond to what his character goes through.

In between playing a role three times, changes can occur — the social climate, the actor's connection to the character. But Rispoli described some of the subjects the play tackles – “racism and implied racism, injustice and implied injustice” – as constants that don’t go away. “I think the play was prescient in the first production and that it resonates as strong, if not stronger, now.”

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Liza Colón-Zayas: Church Lady

“This is now my eighth play with Stephen Adly Guirgis," said Colón-Zayas. Most recently, she, along with Riverside's Canavan and Victor Almanzar, also appeared in Guirgis's play Halfway Bitches Go Straight to Heaven.

"He's my favorite living playwright, and he’s been my friend for 35 years,” she continued. “I have a career because of him. He brings characters to life on that stage that look like me, that sound like me, and that gives us, under the most awful situations, the most humanity.”

Colón-Zayas holds her fellow actors in high regard. Henderson, who anchors the play, “never presents as the alpha in the room. He’s like a cloud with a human body,” she says. And Common “is from the mothership. He could come with a lot of other stuff at his level. He was the only person to come in on the first day of rehearsals completely off book.”

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Rosal Colón: Lulu

“I remember doing this play when there were just five or six pages of Act One, Scene One," said Colón, who plays Lulu, Junior's girlfriend. "I had no idea where this character was going or what way the play was going. But I was like, ‘I’m in. I want to do this.’”

Since then, the people in the play have grown more complex. “These characters have a profound desperation for survival,” she said. “But there’s also a lot of love and a lot of hope.”

Before each performance, love and hope are in the air during a pre-show backstage ritual when the cast gathers. “We try to get together at five minutes before just so we are all united,” said Colón. “We collectively take in that breath and share a prayer to get us going on the ride.”

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Victor Almanzar: Oswaldo

Before he began graduate studies, Almanzar did a summer intensive with the Labyrinth Theatre Company. “That’s where I met Stephen Adly Guirgis," he recalled. "He’s someone who writes about people you don’t typically see on the stage, and his work resonates so much with me. At the time, [Guirgis] was developing different works, and one of them was Between Riverside and Crazy."

Participating in some of the early readings of the play eventually led to Almanzar being offered the role of Oswaldo, Pops's surrogate son. “That was my first production I did as a professional,” he said. “Now, I’m making my Broadway debut with the same play. It’s like something sent from heaven.”

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