This breakfast chat is in the opening of scene of Between Riverside and Crazy, by Stephen Adly Guirgis. In a series of plays that include Our Lady of 121st Street, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train and The Motherf***er with the Hat, Mr. Guirgis has become known for affectionately dramatizing the lives of passionate, off beat, New York City characters with inimitably colorful dialogue.
Widowed African-American Walter “Pops” Washington is a New York City policeman who’s been inactive since he was shot while off duty at a bar by an another cop eight years earlier. His Riverside Drive rent-stabilized apartment is also home to his good-natured ex-convict son Junior, Junior’s boisterous younger girlfriend Lulu, and Junior’s prison pal, the philosophical Oswaldo.
Pops’ former partner and her policeman fiancée are involved with negotiating a settlement to his unresolved compensatory lawsuit against the city. That issue also risks the loss of his apartment. A visit from a miraculous neighborhood church lady provides even more complications.
Until its climax, the first act is mostly conversation that often doesn’t seem to lead anywhere dramatically. The second act rapidly imparts surprise after surprise at a dizzying pace. However, the play never ceases to entertain, due to its often hilarious conversations, and its perplexing, outlandish, and fantastical plot developments.
In a long career as a distinguished supporting performer who has often appeared in plays by August Wilson and with many roles in film and television, Stephen McKinley Henderson has a career triumph by creating the leading role of Pops Washington. With his characteristic simplicity, Mr. Henderson commandingly portrays the many moods and complexities of this feisty downtrodden character.
Ray Anthony Thomas (replaced by Ron Cephas Jones in the re-munting) is quite moving as his emotionally troubled son. Rosal Colón is delightful as the chatterbox girlfriend. Capturing the pathos of an ex-con struggling to reform, Victor Almanzar is both very funny and very sad at the same time. Elizabeth Canavan and Michael Rispoli make a great good cop/bad cop team. As the Church Lady, Liza Colón-Zayas is called upon to perform a sequence of intense physicality that enhances her already engaging performance.
Venerable and accomplished fixture of the theater, Austin Pendleton has perfectly directed the play. The characters and their relationships have all been minutely realized and the action well staged.
Scenic designer Walt Spangler’s turntable set brilliantly renders the various rooms in Pops’ apartment as well as the building’s rooftop. Among the authentic looking details and props is a mournful Christmas tree with lights that subtly comments on the passage of time.
Like Harold Pinter and David Mamet, Stephen Adly Guirgis has made a theatrical impact by vibrantly creating his own identifiable and idiosyncratic universe. Between Riverside and Crazy is a very fine addition to it.
“I thought I knew him. But who really knows anybody anyway, ya know?” says Pops about one of the play’s many startling revelations.
Between Riverside and Crazy (re-mounted through March 22, 2015)
Atlantic Theater Company production at The Second Stage
Terry Kiser Theatre, 307 W. 43rd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets call, 212-246-4422 or visit http://www.2st.com
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission