Between Riverside and Crazy presents a world of shades, uncertainties, and complicated relationships. Between the exchanges of rapid fire, often profanity laden dialogue and sometimes scathing speeches, there sit stunning silences that speak volumes.
Questions of family, friendship, loyalty, are thrown into the mix but the answers are far from easy and defy expectations. This production at Studio Theatre leaves no doubt about Guirgis’ play earned the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Like a wounded animal peering into the distance with soulful eyes, Walter “Pops” Washington is the formidable central character in Between Riverside and Crazy. Bitter and brash, never far from a bottle of booze, and crazy like a fox, Walter reigns like a despotic ruler lording over his rent controlled palace.
The dwelling, a spacious but lived-in apartment on Riverside Drive, might be Walter’s castle, but the threat of eviction is ever present. He clings to his 1978 rent-controlled lease like a shield, especially in the months following his wife’s recent death. Walter is also a former New York City cop, wounded and disabled under questionable circumstances. He has been fighting a tough legal battle against the NYPD and the City of New York for the eight years since the shooting, and it looks as if he will end up with little to show for his trouble.
Even as he prolongs his legal troubles, the irascible Walter has also taken in a trio of young people, including his ex-con son, Junior, and Junior’s ex-con best friend Oswaldo. Junior may be trying to get straight or he may still be selling stolen goods from out of Walter’s apartment. Oswaldo might even be involved in shadier deals. What is a former cop doing harboring such low-lifes? Ah, there’s the rub. As Walter tells Oswaldo, “It ain’t nothin’ but a thing.”
Guirgis paints portraits of characters as they really can be: contradictory beings that can rant and rave, and still capable of deep sensitivity towards each other. The race card can be played, but it might not be the card you expect to see. Good cops are probably not good cops after all, especially where ethics rest on quicksand. Questions of ethics, morals, race, justice, family, and freedom are all filtered through a mature drama that often elicits belly laughs followed by gasps of recognition. Revealing too many details would diminish the power of the intricacies of Guirgis’ work and the excellence of the performances that carry the story through to the satisfying conclusion.
Frankie R. Faison strikes all the right notes as Walter in a nuanced but commanding performance. Faison’s Walter might let someone get close to him or he just might strike out with brute force, fire-eyed and filled with resolve. As a proverbial poker player, Walter is a master player and Faison holds all the cards until just the right moment, which makes for riveting theatre.
As his stable of young house guests, Sean Carvajal, Jasmin Tavarez, and Bryant Bentley make for an interesting and engaging trio. Carnajal’s Oswaldo skates the fine line between thug and puppy dog. Tavarez makes the most of her colorful role as Junior’s sexpot girlfriend who might not be a dumb as she acts. And Bentley turns in a subtle performance as the sensitive son, who has made it through hard knocks and is devoted to his father even as Walter talks to him like a dog. There is way more than meets the eye with each character, and the young actors balance the nuances and hold their own with Faison, moment by moment.
The outsiders to Walter’s little rent-controlled mansion provide additional more-than-meets-your-eye conflict to the play. As Walter’s former protégée and partner Det. O’Conner, Emily Townley shows her devotion to her mentor and her consternation when Walter raises the stakes of their relationship in unexpected ways. Her fiancé and NYPD lieutenant Dave Caro, adds another layer to Walter’s legal and ethical sturm and drang. David Bishins as Caro brings a performance of depth that transcends the idea of “good cop/bad cop.”
Director Brian MacDevitt handles the rich text and vivid characters with skill, staging the show on the detailed, realistic set by designer Lee Savage, including the rooftop overlooking Riverside Drive. MacDevitt allows the play to move organically throughout the plot, all working towards the pivotal scene between Walter and his fellow cops.
Between Riverside and Crazy, after examining hard questions, and ending on an open note, leaves one statement hanging in the air. As Walter confronts his former partner with bitter truths and his unwavering determination, O’Conner tells him what he is doing is not right. Walter’s response: “What a world it would be if what was right was enough.”
Between Riverside and Crazy by Stephen Adly Guirgis . Director: Brian MacDevitt . Featuring Frankie R. Faison, Sean Carvajal, Jasmin Tavarez, Bryant Bentley, Emily Townley, David Bishins, and Cristina Frias . Set design: Lee Savage . Lighting design: Jen Schriever . Costume design: Dede M. Ayite . Sound design: Eric Shimelonis . Fight Director: Robb Hunter . Stage manager: Anthony O. Bullock . Produced by Studio Theatre . Reviewed by Jeff Walker .