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Theatre in Review: Between Riverside and Crazy (Second Stage/Helen Hayes Theatre)

Stephen McKinley Henderson, Elizabeth Canavan, Michael Rispoli, Rosal Colón, Common. Photo: Joan Marcus

Few playwrights let their characters run off at the mouth as entertainingly as Stephen Adly Guirgis. In Between Riverside and Crazy some of the choicest comments come from Walter Washington, aka Pops (a term he hates), a retired cop holed up in his expansive, faded Upper West Side apartment with a motley assortment of rudderless souls, including his son Junior, Junior's girlfriend Lulu, and Oswaldo, a recovering (depending on the day) addict. Sitting at his kitchen table, enjoying his morning bourbon in a teacup, Walter sees no reason to keep his opinions to himself, and they are strong, salty, and hilariously pitiless.

For example: Telling Junior that the family dog needs an outing, Walter adds, "Your girl was supposed to walk him, but then air entered the space between her ears, and she forgot." Eyeballing a friend's engagement ring, he mutters, "This looks like some serious Audrey Hepburn Cartier Kim Kardashian shit right here." Noting Oswaldo's penchant for calling out acquaintances in newspaper stories, he says, "Yeah, but do you know any people who ain't criminals, Oswaldo?! Cuz it's never the guy who rescued the puppy that you know. Or the brother saved a baby from a burnin' building. But any motherfucker perpetrates a felony and ends up in the NY Post -- that's always the motherfucker you know!"

All these and more are juicily delivered by Stephen McKinley Henderson in his third tour of duty as Walter, following Off Broadway engagements in 2014 and 2015. His plus-size frame usually tucked into a wheelchair he doesn't really need -- it is left over from the recently deceased wife he fiercely loved and ultimately disappointed -- he holds forth, a curmudgeon in winter, grumbling about anything and everything: his long-running lawsuit against the police department; Junior's shady ways, including the "discount store" of hot electronic gear stashed in his bedroom; and the landlord who wants to evict the entire ménage and jack up the rent several hundred percent. (The apartment, by the way, is a crumbling wonder, the sort of inexpensive fixer-upper that New Yorkers covet. As realized by designer Walt Spangler, it is frozen in time, filled with furnishings from another era, a refuge for Walter to hide out from a changing world.)

Henderson, who can unleash an enormous laugh with a dismissive wave of his hand, wins us over immediately, dismissing proffered organic snacks with a prediction that almonds will soon be deemed carcinogenic and tossing in a request for Cool Whip. Even better, the actor has no interest in soft-pedaling Walter's tougher aspects, including his withholding ways with Junior; his occasional dishonesty; and his ability, verging on blackmail, to strike a hard bargain when settling old scores. Then again, Guirgis, who has an unfailingly accurate ear for a certain kind of echt-New York patois, presents his characters without comment, leaving it to the audience to make of them what they will. Just about everybody in Between Riverside and Crazy is working one angle or another; among other things, the more we hear about the possibly racially tainted accident that ended Walter's career, the less clear-cut it seems.

Under Austin Pendleton's clinically observant direction, the rest of the cast provides Henderson with plenty to play against. As Oswaldo, Victor Almanzar is a virtuoso of street talk, whether making arias out of his self-improvement plans or threatening Walter in drug-fueled desperation. Elizabeth Canavan and Michael Rispoli are a perfectly slippery pair as friendly former colleagues with reasons of their own for wanting Walter's lawsuit settled. Rosal Colón is a consistently sunny prsence as Lulu, who, thanks to a surprise pregnancy, gets caught in the crossfire between Walter and Junior. (Despite his dim view of Lulu's intelligence, Walter is not averse to joining her on the roof for some surreptitious weed smoking.) Liza Colón-Zayas is alarming as a Santería-practicing church lady who delivers Communion hosts with her teeth, her seduction of Walter climaxing in a coronary event. All are veterans of the play's previous productions; new to the cast is Common, providing plenty of snap to the underwritten role of Junior, particularly itn the Act II father - son recknoning, an exchange of home truths that ends in a truce of sorts.

Spangler's set -- a turntable that reveals the apartment's kitchen, living room, and bedroom -- is lit by Keith Parham with a strong attention to detail that fills out and deepens each stage picture. Alex Forte's costumes are eminently suitable to each character. In addition to his effective original music, Ryan Rumery's sound design includes the evocative use of passing traffic and the 1971 Chi-Lites hit "Have You Seen Her?"

Where Between Riverside and Crazy runs into a bit of trouble is arriving at an ending. This is a persistent issue in Guirgis' plays; he is far more interested in his recording his characters' scalding vernarcular than in tying up everything neatly. Here he supplies a finale that is slightly confusing, thanks to a scrambled time frame; he also grants Walter a reprieve from his troubles that, we are told, is the result of unasked-for grace. Fair enough -- there is a strain of Catholic thought in Guirgis' work -- but even on those terms it feels surprisingly abrupt and not terribly well-earned. A 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner, it nevertheless may not be his strongest piece.

Still, line by line, Between Riverside and Crazy delivers as much pleasure as any play in New York right now. Guirgis captures the ear (and mind and heart) of the city with uncanny accuracy in dialogue that is rich, rough, and vibrant. See it for that, the memorable supporting cast, and Henderson, a great actor, in the role of his career. --David Barbour

(20 December 2022)

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