ADVERTISING AT CURTAINUP
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Review
Between Riverside and Crazy
By Jacob Horn
Watching Between Riverside and Crazy, a finely-crafted new play by Stephen Adly Guirgis, it's hard not to think about Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun, a quintessential 'real estate play'—and not just because Riverside's star, Stephen McKinley Henderson, recently appeared in Raisin on Broadway. Even 55 years later, Guirgis's play, now premiering at Atlantic Theater Company under the skilled direction of Austin Pendleton, gestures towards the intersection of race, class, and the transformation of urban neighborhoods, as Walter "Pops" Washington (Henderson) is threatened with eviction from his rent-stabilized Riverside Drive apartment.
But there's much more to Riverside than whether Walter will lose the apartment or not, so dismiss any fears that it might devolve into a tenant/landlord procedural. Guirgis fleshes out his play with other intriguing characters, all with their own agendas and conflicts. Even while the show feels like it's telling one story, it contains a deceptively large number of subplots, each one neatly employed in the service of the larger narrative. The skillful writing gives the play a dynamism that is as compelling as it is edifying.
Among these supporting characters we have Junior (Ray Anthony Thomas), Walter's son, living at home and trapped somewhere between adulthood and childhood. He's too old for his girlfriend, Lulu (Rosal Colón), yet not mature enough to deal with her revelation early in the play that she's pregnant. When he calls Walter "Pops," it almost feels less intimate than when Lulu and Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar)—an ex-con and friend of Junior's who also lives with them—refer to Walter as "Dad."
The cast also includes Walter's former police partner Detective O'Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and her fiancée Lieutenant Caro (Michael Rispoli), who are determined to help Walter settle a long running legal dispute with the city and save his house, while a woman we know only as the Church Lady (Liza Colón-Zayas) seems equally determined to save his soul.
O'Connor and Caro, two white characters trying to pitch an offer the black character can't refuse, are (intentionally or not) the most obvious echo of Raisin, recalling the character of Karl Lindner. Certainly, the circumstances are incredibly different, but it nonetheless proves illuminating to compare the actions of Guirgis's white characters with Hansberry's.
In a cast that's highly skilled all around, Henderson's performance as Walter is a standout, and one of the joys of the show is seeing him play off of the other characters throughout. Guirgis has a tremendous ability to create dialogue that can make you burst out laughing at inappropriate moments, mixing the comic and tragic so that the two blend to disorienting effect. Henderson demonstrates equal skill in bringing such moments to life.
The performers also impress as they capture the nuances of Guirgis's characters, who are often more complex than they seem at first glance. Hypocrisy abounds on a variety of levels, implicating each character at some point or another. The moment you think you have someone figured out, you very well might soon find out otherwise. Such revelatory moments risk playing as forced or manufactured, but that never happens here.
Walt Spangler's turntable set, in conjunction with the lights by Keith Parham, cleverly creates a space that doesn't just look like typical Upper West Side apartment but also has the arrangement of an actual living space, rather than one that was dismantled for the theater. The staging takes advantage of this, turning a potential gimmick into an asset.
Altogether, it's striking how refined Between Riverside and Crazy feels in its world premiere. The apartment walls may be crumbling in places, but unlike the pre-war unit in which it takes place, Guirgis's latest play feels fresh and polished. And unlike most New York apartments, it's well worth what you'll pay for it.