Review: ‘Between Riverside and Crazy’ by Stephen Adly Guirgis at ACT (****)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Carl Lumbly stars as Walter "€œPops" Washington in Stephen Adly Guirgis'€™s Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy, "Between Riverside and Crazy." Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
Carl Lumbly stars as Walter “€œPops” Washington in Stephen Adly Guirgis’€™s Pulitzer Prize–winning dark comedy, “Between Riverside and Crazy.” Photo Credit: Kevin Berne.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

The hallmarks of ACT’s fast-paced production of “Between Riverside and Crazy” are top-flight acting, lightning quick dialogue, and black humor. Stephen Adly Guirgis gives us a messy rent-controlled NYC apartment on Riverside Drive that hosts an ever-changing scene, challenging us to follow the lives of characters who are hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Yes, Guirgis has become a Thornton Wilder for our time — giving us hard truths in down-to-earth lyrical language, spiced with lots of obscenities. We hear the voices of real people showing us why Black Lives Matter. Gurgius brings us Occupy Drama, locating us right between Riverside Drive and Crazy, a funny and mysterious place to be.

“Between Riverside and Crazy” takes place in a rent-stabilized apartment on the gentrifying Upper West Side, where low or reasonable rents have become a dream. It could be the Mission, or Oakland, or Berkeley, or Mountain View. The next step for Walter “Pops” Washington (a brilliant Carl Lumbly), the wounded ex-cop, could be “crazy,” or no future at all. Like Pops himself, we have to think about the jokes later as we watch and make the play hold together.

Stephen Adly Guirgis’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner opens in a “ghetto” kitchen, where many old-timers grew up. We are thrust into the middle of a rapid-fire monologue by Oswaldo (Lakin Valdez), talking to Walter about Oswaldo’s dietary choices and ideas about nutrition. Oswaldo rifs and rants, a jazz linguist, on fiber, pies, ding-dongs, and the virtues of almonds from Trader Joe’s. His smart-ass street lingo, mingled with second-hand hipster wisdom, tickles us because Guirgis blends street talk with earnest self-examination. Oswaldo, a recovering addict, is trying to get straight with the help of Wlater, who is his adopted father. Walter, the retired cop, presides in his deceased wife’s wheelchair over what could be the last rent-controlled apartment in New York City.

Beyond the humorous and “helpful” talk about “emotional” eating that Oswaldo spouts sits the boredom and cynicism that Lumbly’s Walter sensitively projects. Walter has decided to put up with the ramblings and rants of the younger generation, to help them out, but not to let go of his rental unit or his authority.

Walter’s troublesome son, Junior (Samuel Ray Gates), coolly comes and goes, dragging in mysterious boxes, and smooching with his sexy, sly girlfriend, Lulu (Elia Monte-Brown), who mixes up language beautifully. Junior is an ex-con, and Lulu flaunts her booty in short shorts all around the apt. As Lulu says, “I may look how I look, but that don’t mean I am how I look.” They all have something to gain from Walter who both withholds and offers, trying to make sense out of the chaos that surrounds them. They live on the edge of a precipice and we know they will tip over. We see it happening on the streets outside the theater, too.

Walter is full of surprise: he rises out of the wheelchair and relaxes back into it. Maybe he’s playing possum? He has an eight year law suit pending against the NYC Police Department, and his former partner Detective Audrey O’Connor (Stacy Ross) and her fiancée, Lieutenant Dave Caro (Gabriel Marin), team up to talk sense to him. They are convincing and clever; she driven by love, he by ambition.

But Walter is holding out for some pay-back, hunkering down in the apartment, doing good to his family and friend while denying he’s doing anything at all. He’s a hard man to please (we love him for that), and Carl Lumbly makes us understand his many facets. Walter is a man who no longer expects much from anyone, but puts up smartly with all the shit. He complains about it, but he puts up with it: essential American traits. He occupies his little bit of space, defending it from attacks from all sides. A middle class audience can sympathize with a Black ex-cop defending his turf. But does he have half a chance at recovery? How can he do more than accept his afflictions?

“Between Riverside and Crazy” is a comedy of manners, a satire of legal exploitation, and a parody of official police red-tape, designed to make those at the bottom give in and give up. The rules and regulations of rent-control and the law turn out to be a sham that landlords and lawyers can easily outflank as they conspire to get Walter to sign off on his lawsuit and end his tenure on Riverside. Guirgis has torn his comedy right from the headlines.

In addition, a supposed Church Lady (a startling sexy Catherine Castellanos) claims she’s from Brazil, delivering a sermon and a sensual presence that could kill Walter or thrust him into rebirth. Castellanos mounts the wheelchair in a brilliant alcohol-drenched climax of transcendence.

Does Walter give in to the bureaucrats, finally? What does he exact in return for his signature? Can he begin a new life in old age? Has he taken care of business? Who is crazy here?

These are questions that occupy us, as the jokes come thick and fast—and each of the characters emerge from hiding and undergoes violent changes in Act Two. Director Iren Lewis gives us a rare honest look at how many of our fellows live and look and talk in this conflicted, contradictory time. Lumbly invites us to look more deeply, and with a gentler eye.

“Between Riverside and Crazy” by Stephen Adly Guirgis plays at ACT, Geary Theater, San Francisco, through September 27, 2015. For further information click here.

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“Between Riverside and Crazy” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, produced by American Conservatory Theater. Director: Irene Lewis. Scenic Design: Christopher Barreca. Costume Design: Candice Donnelly. Lighting Design: Seth Reiser. Sound: Leon Rothenburg. Casting: Janet Foster, CSA.. Dramaturg: Michael Paller.

Cast:

Walter “Pops” Washington: Carl Lumbly. Oswaldo: Lakin Valdez. Lulu: Elia Monte-Brown. Junior: Samuel Ray Gates. Detective Audrey O’Connor: Stacy Ross. Lieutenant Dave Caro: Gabriel Marin. Church Lady: Catherine Castellanos.

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