Friday, February 13, 2015

Off-Broadway Review—"Between Riverside and Crazy"

Between Riverside and Crazy
Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis; directed by Austin Pendleton
Performances through March 22, 2015
Second StageTheatre, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY

Stephen McKinley Henderson and Rosal Colon in Between Riverside and Crazy (photo: Carol Rosegg)
If there's a reason to see Between Riverside and Crazy, the less-than-scintillating play by Stephen Adly Guirgus, it's Stephen McKinley Henderson. This superlative actor, who has too often been relegated to secondary roles or as part of ensembles in August Wilson plays—where he's stolen countless scenes—finally gets a role he can sink his teeth into. As Pops, the widowed NYPD retiree living in an enormous rent-controlled Upper West Side apartment, Henderson dominates the proceedings with his gravelly voice, formidable frame and an affecting twinkle in his eye that invites the audience to share in the grand old larcenous time he's having.

Pops—first seen at his kitchen table with Oswaldo, his son Junior's friend, soon followed by Junior's bimbo girlfriend Lulu, and finally Junior himself—is mad at the world, and himself, for how his life has gone. He was shot a few years ago by a rookie white officer, forcing his retirement, and his ensuing squabble with the city is not going his way; meanwhile, his landlord is hoping to get him out of his incredibly cheap apartment and his former partner, Audrey, and her fiancee Dave are trying to talk him into finally settling with the city. Through all this, he might as well be hosting a halfway house for his ex-con son Junior and Junior's shady friends. 

As usual with Guirgis plays, this is a world not often seen onstage: the multi-ethnic diversity of his characters, most of whom are living on the margins of society, bursts into vivid life thanks to his unerring ear for their authentically slangy talk. However, although his grasp of the language of these marginal people is convincing, he often goes too far just for laughs: early on, for example, Pops has to ask who Ben Affleck is, while later, he nonchalantly tosses off a Justin Bieber reference. Would Pops really know about one and not the other?

Guirgis is also on shaky ground when putting his characters through their paces. When the supposedly sterile Pops is seduced by a Brazilian church lady hoping to get money out of him, he ends up having a miraculous orgasm; later, when he finally agrees to the city's settlement, he wants Audrey and Dave to throw in something personal as their part of the bargain: her $30,000 engagement ring. And everyone's relatively happy ending—even Oswaldo, who earlier cold-cocked Pops when he wouldn't give him his credit card—underlines Guirgis's desperate strategems in getting from A to B, with the contradictory behavior on display less like the messy but real complexity of life and more the improbable contrivances of the playwright.

Still, Crazy is never less than entertaining in Austin Pendleton's generous and well-paced production, which allows the terrific cast the ample breathing room that Guirgis's breathless torrents of dialogue rarely do. Walt Spangler's outstanding apartment set, which provides a comfortably lived-in backdrop to the fuzzy goings-on, also doubles as a frame through which to watch the acting genius of Stephen McKinley Henderson.

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