Between Riverside and Crazy

Stephen Adly Guirgis's Between Riverside and Crazy has a celebrated limited run at the Atlantic last year. When a slot became available in its season, Second Stage Theatre filled it with this new American play. I had heard good buzz about it, but I was also not a dyed-in-the-wool Guirgis fan. (I did not enjoy his Broadway debut, The Motherfucker with the Hat.) So I was cautiously optimistic as I settled in for Between Riverside and Crazy. And now I'm writing a cautious endorsement of the play.

At the center of the story is Pops, played by the great Stephen McKinley Henderson (Fences, The Newsroom). Pops is a retired police officer who was widowed a little over a year ago. He lives in his Riverside Drive apartment with his son, Junior (Ron Cephas Jones), who is not necessarily on the straight and narrow. Junior's flakey girlfriend, Lulu (Rosal Colon), has also taken up residency, as has Junior's friend Oswaldo (an engaging Victor Almanzar), who has a troubled past but is trying to make amends.

Pops' tenants seem to be (slightly) interesting distractions from what I see as the inciting incident: Pops has to decide what to do about a suit he's brought against the police department. His former colleague, Detective O'Connor (Elizabeth Canavan), and her fiancé, Lieutenant Caro (a wooden Michael Rispoli), are there to convince Pops to accept a settlement.

It's this part of the story that has the most resonance for me. It seems Pops was shot by a cop. It is known that Pops was off-duty at the time, but the rest of the circumstances are under dispute—except this: Pops is black and the cop who shot him is white. Pops argues the shooting was racially biased, and has dragged the case out over years. The NYPD has had enough of the "nuisance suit." I'm sure I don't need to spell out the parallels between what's being talked about on stage and what's happening in our country.

But Guirgis seems determined to create more of a character study, rather than a plot– or story–driven play, and so the "distractions" take up a sizable chunk of stage time. Further exploring Pops, Guirgis introduces the Church Lady (Liza Colon-Zayas). In act one, Pops talks about the church lady, but when we meet Church Lady in act two, we learn that this is a different church lady, and this one has ulterior motives. She seems innocuous at first, but her actions speak louder than words. More a device than a character, her final interaction with Pops speaks volumes about his character.

Guirgis's writing is sharp and incisive. It's clear that he likes people and is interested in the way they talk and the way they interact. (Director Austin Pendleton confirmed as much during a post-show discussion, saying Guirgis, "likes to hang out with people.") Different groupings bring out different communication styles, and I can appreciate that appreciation of language.

Yet as I write this, I'm about a week removed from seeing the play and nothing in particular is standing out. Guirgis's work didn't grip me, though it didn't turn me off in the moment the way ...with the Hat did. My weak opinion of the show seems to be the outlier among the critical consensus, so if you're curious about American plays about the American experience today, see for yourself.