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A CurtainUp Review
Between Riverside and Crazy
By Elyse Sommer
Before I write another word: Don't miss it this time. While the production is certainly Broadway worthy and likely to make such a move, don't wait for that to happen.
This is the best play by an American writer, about contemporary American characters in an authentic American setting I've seen in a long time. It's funny and sad, timely yet timeless.
Except for one cast change, the premiere production is intact. The terrific Stephen McKinley Henderson once again heads the excellent ensemble playing the imperfect but very human characters populating this story. Austin Pendleton is back at the helm, artfully managing to make us understand and become involved with the problematic situations that connect all these people. So are the striking design elements.
The "Riverside" of the title refers to Manhattan street alongside the Hudson River. It's here that Walter Washington, better known as Pops (Henderson), holds the rent-controlled lease to a spacious but currently shabby and not very well cared for apartment.
Walt Spangler's stunning turntable set, which is almost an eighth character, makes it clear that this prime piece of real estate figures importantly in the plot. Details a Christmas tree still standing around in the play's summer time frame reflect Walter's downhill trajectory. That downward slide began when six bullets by a rookie cop ended his own police career. It escalated with a bitter legal battle with the NYPD and, more recently, his wife's death.
And so Mr. Guirgis, that quintessential recorder of the vernacular of New York's diverse population, has chosen to use characters from his kind of world to spin a naturalistic and quintessential New York real estate story. What's more he takes a page from the late, great August Wilson to finish it off with a touch of magic realism that features a super sizzly sex scene.
The role of the man lucky enough to have snagged an apartment with a Hudson River view before Manhattan real estate values skyrocketed but not so lucky in other matters is an ideal starring opportunity for Mr. Henderson. As Pops he manages to be at once funny and tragic, affectionate yet distant and cruel, honorable but not quite.
No, the shooting while he was off-duty didn't cripple him as indicated by the wheelchair he occupies in the kitchen scenes that dominate the play. It's a leftover from his wife's illness that he finds comfortable.
Clinging to that chair also echoes the stubborn refusal Of Pops to let go of his increasingly unrealistic claim for compensation. And his filling the void left by his wife's death by allowing several "orphans" from the conventional straight and ginal as well as enable the City to put a harsh end to his ongoing claim for justice.
The real pleasures of your visit to this Riverside Drive apartment will not come from finding out whether Pops gets to keep it or not, but from watching his interaction with the intriguing suppot players — all of whom have their own issues and thus add rich subtext to Walter's story.
Among thoes needy for a dad "orphans" occupying the spare bedrooms, there's Junior (Ron Cephas Jones a well chosen replacement for Ray Anthony Thomas, the original) who actually is his son, his girl friend Lulu (Rosal Colón), and his friend Oswaldo (Victor Almanzar). Both men entertain hopes of shedding prison pasts yet true to Guirgis's characters, tend to stray from their attempts to stay on the straight and narrow path.
Junior's fencing of stolen goods rather than focusing on studying music at City College prompt his father's disgusted "Hurry up and become a fuckin' man already, son— so I can break a hip and drop dead in peace." While Pops sees right through Junior's claim that Lulu, probably a former prostitute, is studying accountinga ("She don't study no accounting. Her lips move when she read the horoscope."), he's thrilled at the possibility of her making him a grandfather.
The plot thickens via a visit from Pops's former police partner Detective O'Connor (Elizabeth Canavan) and her ambitious fiance Lieutenant Caro (Michael Rispoli). Both are a wonderful mix of well-meaning but manipulative loudness who will undoubtedly kick up memories of the scene in A Raisin in the Sun (in a recent revival of which Henderson when representative from the neighborhood association tries to sweet talk them out of their home purchase. (Henderson played a cameo in last year's Broadway revival of that play)
Leave it to Guirgis to give even that Church Lady (the winning Liza Colón-Zayas) to bring her own agenda to her not so other-worldly way of bringing grace to Pops. Whether you buy into the play's finale, Riverside and Crazy adds up to a vivid group portrait that entertains and absorbs without the cache of a British production of movie star names above the title.
Following is a list to links of other Stephen Adly Guirgis plas reviewed at Curtainup.
Mother f**Ker With The Hat -Guirgis's first Broadway play
The Last Days of Judas Iscariot
The Little Flower of East Orange
Our Lady of 121st Street
Jesus Jumped the A Grain
Between Riverside and Crazy at Atlantic Theater