Between Riverside and Crazy ****

By: Samuel L. Leiter

January 4, 2023: Sometimes there is an unplanned, serendipitous confluence between real-life events and a play, usually having nothing to do with a playwright’s intentions. I’m thinking of the relationship between Stephen Adly Guirgis’s passionate yet humorous Between Riverside and Crazy, about an intransigent man who refuses to compromise, and a passage in today’s Times describing the current political spectacle in which an ornery band of rightwing Republican Party congressmen and women is blocking the election of a Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Victor Almanzar, and Common.

By: Samuel L. Leiter

January 4, 2023: Sometimes there is an unplanned, serendipitous confluence between real-life events and a play, usually having nothing to do with a playwright’s intentions. I’m thinking of the relationship between Stephen Adly Guirgis’s passionate yet humorous Between Riverside and Crazy, about an intransigent man who refuses to compromise, and a passage in today’s Times describing the current political spectacle in which an ornery band of rightwing Republican Party congressmen and women is blocking the election of a Speaker of the House of Representatives. 

“No matter the concessions made to some of those on the far right, they simply will not relent and join their colleagues even if it is for the greater good of their party, and perhaps the nation. They consider themselves conservative purists who cannot be placated unless all their demands are met — and maybe not even then”. 

I’ll return to this later.

Mr. Guirgis’s riveting play, which premiered to rave reviews in the summer of 2014 at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company, has finally reached Broadway in a 2nd Stage production at the Hayes Theater that is very much like the original. It even has five members of its first seven-actor cast. One, thankfully, is Stephen McKinley Henderson, repeating his towering, award-worthy performance as the stubborn old goat, Walter “Pops” Washington. The others are Victor Almanzar as Oswaldo, Rosal Colón as Lulu, Elizabeth Canavan as Detective Audrey O’Connor, and Michael Rispoli as Walter’s chief foil, Lt. Dave Caro. (Mr. Rispoli’s understudy, J. Anthony Crane, played the part—outstandingly—the night I went.) 

Common and Rosal Colon.

Between Riverside and Crazy deserves considerable attention for the quality of its writing and the all-around excellence of its production, once again beautifully directed by Austin Pendleton; aside from the new actors, it seems little changed from the show of eight and a half years ago, which I reviewed on another site. (Some of the following is adapted from that review.) 

The first thing that happens is that the expansive Riverside Drive apartment on New York’s Upper West Side, one room of which we’ve been staring at since taking our seats, begins to slowly revolve, revealing Walt Spangler’s intricately designed set of high-walled, interlocking rooms, with a balcony-like extension, warmly lit by Keith Parham. It provides an instant impression of why this “palatial” abode, despite its rundown condition, is so desirable and why it is, in essence, as much a character as any of the people in the play. When it stops moving, we see the eat-in kitchen, at whose table the overweight, bathrobe-clad, booze-loving, recently widowed Walter, a retired African American cop and military veteran, is seated in a wheelchair and conversing with a much younger Latino, Oswaldo. Oswaldo, the ex-con friend of Walter’s ex-con son, Junior, is staying here rent-free while he tries to get his act together. The middle-aged Junior (rapper-actor-activist Common, in his Broadway debut) also lives here, as does his sexpot girlfriend, Lulu.

Rosal Colon

Despite the wheelchair, which he uses for comfort, not mobility, Walter is perfectly ambulatory; this is just one of many things in the play that show how what we often assume to be one thing turn out to be the other. As Lulu says to Walter: “I may look how I look—but that don’t mean I AM how I look!”

The apartment, in which Walter has lived since 1978, is rent-controlled; while Walter pays only $1,500 a month rent for it, the landlord can get ten times that amount if he finds a way to remove its tenant. Eight years earlier, Walter, while off duty in a sleazy bar during the wee hours of the morning, was shot six times by a white rookie cop. His injuries forced him to retire, and he’s been suing the city ever since, refusing any settlement, insisting, with some dubiety, that the shooting was racially motivated and that the shooter had called him a “nigger,” although no eyewitness corroborated his assertion. Despite his bitterly professed certainty, ambiguities about the incident persist. 

 Stephen McKinley Henderson and Elizabeth Canavan.

Of the play’s several plot threads, the principal one concerns the very real possibility that Walter will lose his apartment unless he settles. This becomes especially clear when he has over for dinner his ex-partner, Detective O’Connor, who professes enormous admiration for Walter, and her fiancé, the plain-spoken Lt. Dave Caro. Caro, his white officer’s shirt covered in ribbons and brass, is ambitious and has his eye on higher places; if he can convince the obstinate Walter to end his eternal lawsuit, he’ll make a major impression on the powers that be.

As the play wends its way toward the resolution of the apartment problem, it offers a cornucopia of dramatic riches, distinctively comic and fervently serious, with an assortment of complexly detailed and highly colorful characters; each makes a lasting impression based on how he or she interacts with Walter. Oswaldo, a recovering drug addict with father issues, is so fond of Walter he calls him Dad, although Walter’s wary of the guy’s shady past and acquaintances. 

Father issues, in fact, make up a significant part of the play’s thematic structure, as we see in the problematic give and take between not only Walter and Oswaldo, but between Walter and Junior, Walter and Lulu, and even Walter and his former partner, O’Connor, who plans for Walter to walk her down the aisle at her forthcoming wedding. Lt. Caro’s depiction of his own father plays its part, and Lulu’s alleged pregnancy (presumably, if not conclusively, via Junior) occupies stage time, bringing Walter’s potential grandfather-hood into play.

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Victor Almanzar.

Oswaldo has an endearing quality, but in this play you have to be careful about people you trust. As he sits at the breakfast table with Walter, Oswaldo speaks in his lively street patois about the importance of eating the right food (almonds and health water for breakfast), because comfort food, like pie, which Walter is eating, gives you “Emotionalisms.” The cynical Walter counters that whatever the so-called experts say is one day going to be reversed: “Almonds: don’t be surprised if we learn sometime in the future that almonds cause cancer.”

Next we meet the skimpily dressed (Alexis Forte did the naturalistic costumes), physically ample Lulu, who also calls Walter Dad; from where he sits, Lulu has nothing but air between her ears. Told she’s an accounting student, Walter, nobody’s fool, wonders why, if that’s so, she moves her lips when reading her horoscope. One of her responsibilities is to walk the family dog, given to Walter as a companion after his wife died, but which Walter considers a pest, and which offers opportunities for several funny wisecracks.

Walter treats Junior, who sells hot merchandise out of his room, with authoritative disdain, although Junior responds with genuine affection and concern for his father’s well-being, begging him to settle his lawsuit and stop paying his “shyster” lawyers, Lubenthal and Lubenthal, a partnership whose name the playwright exploits with hilarious verbal dexterity. Any advice about ending the case, though, is like lighting a bomb in the old man’s heart, especially when it comes from his son.

When it comes from the two cops, O’Connor and Caro, though, Walter’s pride, stubbornness, and anger know no bounds. Caro works hard at being as friendly, reasonable, and persuasive as possible, even with his admittedly selfish motives. However, the more he presses Walter the more intransigent the ex-cop becomes, and the more Caro is forced to show his true colors. Both Walter and Caro are poker players; this informs their confrontations, and the conclusion to their debate is essentially one of who’s the better bluffer. Ultimately, Walter raises the stakes dramatically. 

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Rosal Colon.

What he asks before he’ll accept the city’s final offer originally made me feel considerable distaste for him. I nevertheless was able to agree that, in his moral universe, his request, egregious as it is, is perfectly appropriate. Seeing it again disturbed me far more seriously, especially as the playwright seems to approve of Walter’s stance, one I sensed the audience also supported, for reasons I won’t venture to rationalize. The parallel with those hard-right Republicans as described by the Times can’t be ignored, though; just as Walter won’t give in even though it might harm his son (Caro, who has the goods on Junior, threatens to arrest him), those politicians—happily, of course, to the delight of progressives—would rather torch their own party than go along with any kind of compromise.

Still, given what we’ve seen of Walter’s unbending character, his actions are more plausible than what happens in the final scene, which deflates the play on a disappointing note of sentimentality that feels out of keeping with what’s come before. 

In Mr. Pendleton’s crafty hands, the pacing, energy, and tonal balance keep the perfectly chosen ensemble humming; freshness, conviction, and vigor, combined with authentic character objectives inform one memorable performance after the other. These actors hold you enthralled from the very first words spoken. In a production of universally fine acting, the most memorable stems from Mr. Henderson and Mr. Crane, the latter every bit as good as I remember Mr. Rispoli to have been. Walter’s rage against all that he’s gone through has Lear-like power, while Mr. Crane’s ability to suggest mounting but repressed frustration while presenting counterargument after counterargument in response to Walter’s defiance is impressive. It makes Lt. Caro, for all his unabashed ambition in hoping to strike a deal, far more sympathetic than his demanding opponent. 

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Common.

Between Riverside and Crazy is filled with dramatic and comedic surprises and twists, like the vivid scene in which a visiting church woman (a terrific Maria-Christina Oliveras, although Liza Colón-Zayas’s name is on the show’s homepage) manages to combine the highly sexual with the intensely spiritual in her ministration to Walter of God’s love. Mr. Guirgis’s vibrant dialogue has a salty quality that sounds like it comes : from the streets, but is loaded with offbeat phrases and expressions that may sound accidental but that only a master word chef could cook up. 

At the moment, there’s only a handful of straight dramas, mostly revivals, on Broadway, which is dominated by musicals. Competition in the new play category for potential Tony Awards barely exists. Between Riverside and Crazy could as easily be considered a revival as a new play, so it will be interesting to see how it’s categorized. If the spring season fails to bring a sufficient number of new plays to the Great White Way it will demonstrate as never before the need to reconsider the viability of adding Off-Broadway plays to the competition. However things play out, though, Between Riverside and Crazy deserves to be somewhere in the mix.

Between Riverside and Crazy
The Hayes Theater
240 W. 44th Street, NYC
Through February 12, 2023
Photography: Joan Marcus