The Broadway Review: Second Stage’s Between Riverside and Crazy
The detailed space of Second Stage‘s Broadway revival of Between Riverside and Crazy now playing at The Hayes Theater, rotates solidly around, taking us into the kitchen so we may listen in to these two characters not talk to one another as they eat their way through the awkwardness of the moment. And when the engagement finally becomes vocalized, we are hooked, instantly, to the conflicted lives of these complicated souls. They “just chilling“, we are told by the captivatingly complex presence of Oswaldo, daringly well portrayed by the engaging Victor Almanzar (BAM’s Medea), with a deep authenticity that resonates. He seems to be filled with electric energy, somehow positive, at this moment. But clearly, that has not always been the case. Yet, with utmost clarity, he states that this connecting engagement is his favorite time of the day, and we lean into his unlying pain and discontent. This is where Oswaldo has found a semblance of home, under the stern eye of Pops, played ever-so-solidly by the brilliant Stephen McKinley Henderson (Broadway’s A Doll’s House Part 2). It’s a true masterclass of artful complication and connection, as the air isn’t exactly calm and without conflict in the rent-stabilized apartment of Pops, but for Oswaldo, this “breakfast buds” moment is as close as it comes to some parental security and a caring attachment.
Sitting in a wheelchair at the kitchen table for no obvious reason other than it’s comfortable, or so he says, the more than capable Pops finds himself in a place of tension. We soon find out that the chair has some sort of solid attachment all on its own. However, you can’t really see it in the way he emotionally eats and engages with all the characters that wander through his kitchen, like the fascinatingly simplistic Lulu, played strongly by Rosal Colón (MTC’s Continuity). She is a wisely constructed contradiction, and it doesn’t sit well with Pops, nor the puppy we never see, or that never seems to get walked. Slowly, but surely, the truth, or at least some essence of the truth, starts to float to the surface, thanks to the solid construction by playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis (Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train; Our Lady of 121st Street), as he is so apt to do with this framework. We revel in its unwinding, as we begin to unpack and understand the collision and compression that exists inside these solid walls. For Pops, the ex-cop and recent widower, the view from his apartment on Riverside Drive is bleak and filled with grief, even from the oddly formulated vantage point jutting out on the side of the stage that becomes a form of escape for all, courtesy of set designer Walt Spangler (Broadway’s Tuck Everlasting), with strong subtle lighting by Keith Parham (2ST’s Man From Nebraska). I’m not sure I ever really understood what it was supposed to be, in the construct, but the energy that is sent out from that platform gives it an air that is unassuming and honest. And we find connection in those that inhabit it.
It seems that because of a shooting inadvertently involving Pops and the police, City Hall is demanding something more from him than what he feels he is due, and the outcome isn’t presenting itself clearly. The two sides, with his first partner, Detective O’Connor, played true by Elizabeth Canavan (ATC’s Halfway Bitches…), and the man she is engaged to, Lieutenant Caro, a part usually portrayed by Michael Rispoli (“The Rum Diary“), but played well by understudy J. Anthony Crane (MTC’s Sight Unseen) at the performance I attended, standing in for the opposing side of the argument, have wound up in that tense dining table and bedside stalemate. Much to Pops’ disappointment, his recently paroled son, Junior, played with intensity by the talented Common (“Selma“), is unceremoniously inserted into the mix and into deepening trouble, and that adds a layer of complication that hangs heavy in the air. On top of all that, Pops’ landlord wants him out of the expansive apartment, for financial reasons, and the heavy-handed visits from the Church, connected to the passing of his wife, keep showing up, failing to leave him alone in his pain and pride as he would like them to. That is until one of those visits revitalizes him in one way, but throws him down in another, thanks to the miraculous visitation from this one particularly engaging Church Lady, played to the heavens by Maria-Christina Oliveras (Broadway’s Amélie).
Old wounds get exposed at a dinner gathering, and complicated houseguests and their histories add layers of uncertainty and complications to the already tense arena. The writing of this Pulitzer Prize-winning dark comedy is beyond engaging, as the final ultimatum gets laid out bedside and the outcome continues to remain unclear. As directed with skill by Austin Pendleton (Broadway’s The Little Foxes starring Elizabeth Taylor; CSC’s Three Sisters), the familial territory of playwright Guirgis is spun out, delicately and with a force that crackles with humor and engagement inside this stellar production of Between Riverside and Crazy, which premiered off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2014. Now that it has finally made its way to Broadway, it digs in, to the fraught social complications and the subtle racial tensions of the Upper West Side of New York City, as well as in and outside of the Police fraternity, whether they want to see it or not.
It feels right and just in time, as the rhythm and the rhyme ring true and honest for the captivatingly clever collection of characters, costumed by Alexis Forte (ATC’s Halfway Bitches…) that move through the space to the determined beat of the original music and sound design by Ryan Rumery (CIFF’s “The Way Life Is“). Gentrification hangs above this apartment’s head like a guillotine, waiting to drop down if Pops doesn’t play his cards exactly right. The system is by no means playing fair, but neither, it seems, is Pops. Demons from the past hit hard in this home, from all angles, but it is the way Guirgis builds out his formulations and engagements where we find authenticity and connection throughout. The cast as a whole finds the edge in the words, feeding our collective souls as we watch the way Pops eats his pie and spikes his morning coffee. The tensions exist in strong crosscurrents, leaving us engaged completely as the gruffness raises itself up, and unpacks the tension most brilliantly. Somewhere Between Riverside and Crazy, the play unearths the specifics, finding richness, determination, vulnerability, and violence spread out evenly and underneath all, without giving away the subverted complexities of any of these complicated souls.